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The Messiah

George Frideric Handel

"The Messiah" represents the ripened product of Handel's genius, and reflects the noblest aspirations and most exalted devotion of mankind. Among all his oratorios it retains its original freshness, vigor, and beauty in the highest degree, in that it appeals to the loftiest sentiment and to universal religious devotion, and is based upon the most harmonious, symmetrical, and enduring forms of the art. It was begun on the twenty-second day of August, 1741, and finished on the following September 14. The text was taken from the literal words of scripture, and the libretto arranged by Charles Jennens.

The oratorio was divided into three parts. The first illustrates the longing of the world for the Messiah, prophesies his coming, and announces his birth; the second part is devoted to the sufferings, death and exaltation of Christ, and develops the spread the ultimate triumph of the Gospel; while the third ocupied with the declaration of the highest truths of doctrine -- faith in the existence of God, the surety of immortal life, the resurrection, and the attainment of an eternity of happiness.

The first part opens with an overture, or rather orchestral prelude, of majestic chords, leading to a short fugue, developed with severe simplicity and preparing the way for the accompanied recitative ("Comfort ye my People"), and the aria for tenor ("Every Valley shall be exalted"), which in turn leads to the full, strong chorus ("And the Glory of the Lord shall be reavealed") -- the three numbers in reality forming one. The prophecy is announced, only to be followed by the human apprehension in the great aria for bass ("But who may abide the Day of His coming?"), written in the Silican pastoral style. The aria leads to the exquisitely constructed number ("And He shall purify") a fugued chorus closing in simple harmony. Once more the prophet announces ("Behold, a Virgin shall conceive"), followed by the alto solo ("O Thou that tellest"), which preludes a chorus in the same tempo. The next aria ("The People that walked in Darkness"), with its curious but characteristic modulation leads to one of the most graphic fugued choruses in the whole work ("For unto us a Child is born"), elegantly intrwoven with the violin parts, and emphasized with sublime announcements of the names of the Messiah in full harmony and with the strongest choral power. The grand burst of sound dies away, where is a significant pause, and then follows a short but exquisite Pastoral Symphony for the strings, which with the four succeeding bits of recitative tells the message of the angels to the sheperds on the plains of Bethlehem. Suddenly follows the chorus of the heavenly host ("Glory to God"), which is remarkably expressive, and affords sharp contrast in the successive clear responses to the fugue. The difficult but very brilliant aria for soprano ("Rejoice greatly"), the lovely aria ("He shall feed His Flock"), in which Handel returns again to the pastoral style, and a short chorus ("His Yoke is easy"), close the first part.

The second part is the most impressive portion of the work. It begins with a majestic and solemn chorus ("Behold the Lamb of God"), which is followed by the aria for alto ("He was despised") -- one of the most pathetic and deeply expressive songs ever written, in which the very key-note of sorrow is struck. Two choruses -- ("Surely He hath borne our Griefs"), rather intricate in harmony, and ("With His Stripes we are healed"), a fugued chorus written a capella upon an admirable subject -- lead to the spirited and thoroughly interesting chorus ("All we like Sheep have gone astray"), closing with an Adagio of great beauty ("And the Lord hath laid on Him the inquity of us all"). This is followed by several short numbers -- a choral fugue ("He trusted in God"), the acompaniment recitative ("Thy Rebuke hath broken His Heart"), a short but very pathetic aria for tenor ("Behold and see if there be any Sorrow"), and an aria for soprano ("But thou didst not leave His soul in Hell") -- all of which are remarkable instances of the musical expression of sorrow and pity. These numbers lead to a triumphal shout in the chorus and semi-choruses ("Lift up your Heads, O ye Gates!") which reach a climax of magnificent power and strongly contrasted effects. After the chorus ("Let all the Angels of God worship Him"), a fugue constructed upon two subjects, the aria ("Thou art gone up on high"), and the chorus ("The Lord gave the Word"), we reach another pastoral aria of great beauty ("How beautiful are the Feet"). This is followed by a powerfully descriptive chorus ("Their Sound is gone out into all Land"), a massive aria for bass ("Why do the Nations"), the chorus ("Let us break their Bonds asunder"), and the aria ("Thou shalt break them"), leading directly to the great "Hallelujah chorus," which is the triumph of the work and its real climax. It opens with exultant shouts of "Hallelujah." Then ensue three simple phrases, the middle one in plain counterpoint, which form the groundwork for the "Hallelujah." These phrases, semingly growing out of each other, and reiterated with constantly increasing power, interweaving with and sustaining the "Hallelujah" with wonderful harmonic effects, make up a chorus that has never been excelled, not only in musical skill but also in grandeur and sublimity. After listening to its performance, one can understand Handel's words: "I did think I did see all heaven before me, and the great God Himself." This number closes the second part.

If the oratorio had closed at this point, the unities would have been preserved, but Handel carried it into a third part with undiminished interest, opening it with a sublime confession of faith ("I know that my Redeemer liveth"). It is followed by two quartets in plain counterpoint with choral responses ("Since by Man came Death"), and ("For as in Adam all die"), in which in which the effecs of contrast are very effectively brought out. The last important aria in the work ("The Trumpet shall sound"), for bass with trumpet obligato, will always be admired for its beauty and stirring effect. The oratorio closes with three choruses, all in the same key and of the same genial sentiment ("Worthy is the Lamb"), a piece of smooth, flowing harmony; ("Blessing the Honor"), a fugue led off by the tenors and bassos in unison, and repeated by the sopranos and altos on the octave, closing with full harmony on the words "for ever and ever" several times reiterated; and the final "Amen" chorus, which is treated in the severest style, and in which the composer evidently gave free rein to his genius, not being hampered with the trammels of words.

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See also:
Middle Ages Music
Renaissance Music
Baroque Era Music
Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
Nationalist Era Music
Turn of Century Music

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