Today, Handel’s Messiah is one of the most widely performed works: around the world, the oratorio is on the programme of many an orchestra and choir during the Christmas or Easter period. The entire work – from the history of its composition to the music itself – conveys a human message of hope and resilience with which everyone can identify.

On 13 April 1742, some thousand people queued up before The Great Music Hall in Dublin. The hall filled up, while outside there were still hundreds of would-be listeners outside waiting in vain. Not unlike scenes closer to home, where festival and concertgoers are forced to watch the performance of their favourite artist on screen because of the limited capacity of a concert space. But technology was not that advanced yet in the days of George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). And so for the première of his Messiah (HWV 56), they were instructed not to wear any hoop skirts or bring any swords, so that as many people as possible could attend the concert.

The path to success was not an easy one, however. Handel composed Messiah at the nadir of his career, and though the performance in Dublin was extremely successful, it would be nearly ten years before the London audience embraced Messiah.


Throughout his career, Handel appeared to have a knack for making the right contacts. His talent brought him, as a young man, from his native city of Halle to Hamburg, a prosperous and flourishing city, where he wrote a number of successful operas. At the urging of Prince Ferdinando de Medici, he travelled shortly thereafter to Italy, the home of opera. There, too, he soon gained entry to the upper circles of the aristocracy. An important encounter with Prince Ernst August of Hanover led him to the German city of that name. In Hanover, he was appointed Kapellmeister (musical director) and gave new life to the local musical landscape, before relocating definitively to England in 1717.

Handel spent about forty years in London, where he introduced audiences to Italian opera – initially with great success. But around 1730, interest in opera seemed to be waning among the English public, and so he devoted himself to writing oratorios, a genre with which he had already experimented in Rome when opera was banned there. The English oratorio had many advantages: the libretto was in English, making the genre more accessible to a wider audience and enabled Handel to use local singers. In addition, no costly sets were needed. And yet these were difficult years for the composer: he was plagued by health problems, and because of the lack of success of his last operas and oratorios, he was nearly bankrupt. Defeated, he retired in February 1741 and for a long time did not write anything. Until the massively rich Charles Jennens – who had written the text for Handel’s oratorio Saul a few years earlier – showed up with a newly written text.

“Händel says he will do nothing next Winter, but I hope I shall persuade him to set another Scripture collection I have made for him, & perform it for his own Benefit in Passion week. I hope he will lay out his whole Genius and Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah…”
- charles jennens

Jennens’ text reawakened Handel’s love of composing: in a flash of inspiration, he composed the music for Messiah in barely a month. It took a bit longer for the work to have its première, however. It was only when Handel was invited for a series of charity concerts in Dublin in March 1742 did he dare to perform his new composition before an audience. In the Irish capital, he was welcomed as a superstar; all the concerts were sold out in no time. Demand for his new ‘Grand Oratorios’ was particularly high. So much so that some of the audience was still queuing outside during the performance, in the hope of catching a glimpse.

The première of Messiah on 13 April 1742 also earned unanimous praise from the press:

“Mr Händel had his first oratorio ... which was crowded with a more numerous and polite Audience than ever was seen upon a like Occasion. The Performance was superior to any Thing of the Kind in this Kingdom before."

“The Sublime, the Grand and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestic and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear."

For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
The Kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord
And of His Christ;
And He shall reign for ever and ever,
King of Kings and Lord of Lords!
And He shall reign for ever and ever.
Hallelujah! Halleluja!


As enthusiastic as the reception of Messiah was in Dublin, so cool was the reaction in London. Even before the concert in Covent Garden scheduled for 23 March 1743, there was vigorous debate about the suitability of the location for the performance of this “Act of Religion”. Many people considered Messiah "too exalted to be performed in a theatre, particularly by secular singers". And although Handel had tried to anticipate the controversy by calling the work ‘A New Sacred Oratorio’, that did not help, either.

Much of it had to do, of course, with the text of the oratorio, which was not entirely new in this case, but consisted of a collection of Bible verses. The three parts of the work set to music the birth, passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. Both the tripartite structure and the musical approach were an extension of Handel’s earlier operas. Messiah also features virtuoso arias, lyrical choral passages – the best known of which is the Hallelujah chorus that closes the second part – and a similarly dramatic structure. What distinguishes Messiah from Handel’s other oratorios is the lack of a clear narrative structure; the result is thus a more of a contemplative work. Handel understood all too well the power his music could exude. He responded with the following words to a compliment after a performance of Messiah: “I would regret it greatly if I had only entertained my audience. I want to make better men of them.”

It took almost ten years for the London audiences to embrace Messiah with enthusiasm. The controversy about the work only truly died down when Handel included the work in his annual benefit concerts for London's Foundling Hospital. And although he originally wrote the oratorio for Easter, it has come to be performed more and more often in the Christmas season. Various versions of Messiah followed – Handel had to adapt it regularly to the musicians available. Even after his death, his work underwent several reworkings. Mozart, for example, wrote a version for classical orchestra, with the addition of clarinets and brass instruments, and based on a German text. But this was not intended to improve on the work of the Baroque master, “for Handel knew better than anyone what worked. If he decided to do something, he hit it like a bolt of lightning.”

Aurélie Walschaert