Messiah By Handel

Read this article for a history and overview of Handel's

Handel's Messiah is one of the composer's most favored works. It has enjoyed popularity from the composer's day up until the present, where it is a Christmas favorite. But when was the piece written? How was it first received? Handel was born in Halle, Germany, in 1685. His music is well-known for containing a blend of German, English and Italian influences that lasted throughout his works. Handel was born into a musical family, and he was given early music lessons on the piano, clavichord, organ and harpsichord. His works range from religious pieces to art songs to oratorios.

The Messiah is taken from the old and new testaments of the Christian Bible. It details the life and death of Christ in three parts, birth, death and resurrection. Each of these parts consists of recitatives and arias following one another. Because its general theme is that of redemption, it is a Christmas favorite, sung by choruses around the world. In some cases, it is sung and even studies as a ballad, or an epic performance piece along the lines of an opera, but with the accessibility that an oratorio brings.

The Messiah was written under difficult circumstances for the composer. It is rumored that this piece was composed while he was in the Tower of London, imprisoned for debt. This is actually not true, though he was in debt at the time of composition. Handel was suffering from a stoke, however, which paralyzed the left side of his face, causing his intense pain and embarrassment. His left hand had trouble writing, and as a consequence the script of the writing is strangely curved. Dusing a low point in his career, a friend, Charles Jennens, convinced him to write an oratorio on a series of Scripture passages Jennens had arranged in oratorio form. While it is true that Jennens wanted to become known as a librettist, his convincing arguments were also in the composer's best interests.

Handel composed the Messiah in a total of 22 days, for a premiere in Dublin, where he had been invited to perform a series of concerts, despite his illness. When he returned to London, the piece returned with him, and was not performed in Ireland again until the turn of the century. During its London premiere, it did not receive any particular distinction. At the second performance, however, King George II was present in the audience. The King stood for the performance of the Hallelujah Chorus, starting a tradition of standing that exists to this day. After this performance, however, the piece was performed an average of only two times a year, for an Easter series of performances booked by the composer. Handel died before seeing his piece reach the immense popularity that it has achieved in modern times.

It is interesting to note that Handel changed certain parts of the oratorio to suit his varying audiences. Today, it is not clear which changes the composer made at which time, but it is clear that the work was revised after his death. The first revision of Handel's work was actually done by Mozart, who was acting under the orders of a Baron to revise the Messiah so that it could be performed in the houses of Viennese nobility. Mozart revised some of the original orchestral terms and phrasing to reflect the modern musical standards of his day, and revised the wind parts to reflect the changing organ and continuo dynamics in Vienna at the time. Spring performances were then given in Vienna to small, rich audiences, at Easter season because this was the religious holiday most closely associated with the work at that time.

The Messiah is a wonderful piece, full of orchestral and choral nuances that highlight its themes of redemption and salvation. It contains chorus melodies interspersed with solos for soprano, alto, tenor and bass. All of the pieces contain the clear-cut melodies of this Italian-trained composer, which alternate between soaring notes and pomp and circumstances for the nobility. Brass plays a prominent role in the orchestra, which has a sonorous quality unmatched in almost any other oratorio. Despite the fact that it was not played extensively in the composer's day, it is still one of the most famous classical pieces that exists. The reason for this is the flawless nature of its notation and style, and its exceptional use of the oratorio form.

For the beginner, I would recommend a listening of several pieces within the Messiah, for an overview of the piece. "How Beautiful are the Feet," "Their Sound Has Gone Out," "And He Shall Purify" and the "Hallelujah Chorus" are memorable pieces that will bring a flavor of the rest of the work. If in a concert setting, do not forget to stand during the Hallelujah Chorus! Good luck, and enjoy!

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