Salon at Sakura, 12/23/12, Handel’s Messiah

This Salon we will attempt to tackle arguably the greatest choral work in the English language, Handel’s Messiah.     Obviously with a work this massive, I can only barely skim the surface, giving you a bit of history and perspective, and talk about just a few of the pieces that make up this classic.

Can you Handel this?

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was a German composer living in England writing Italian style opera.  (Whew!)

Handel and JS Bach are the two giants of the Baroque age, but were very different in many ways.  Handel was much more the entertainer of the two, and was also much more cosmopolitan, holding positions in Italy and Germany before spending much of his life in England.

Handel’s music was lighter, less contrapuntal and less exacting then Bach’s as well.  Both, however, are worth listening to!

If it ain’t Baroque….

Music of the Baroque period (roughly 1600-1750) is characterized by vast proportions and splendor, an emphasis on polyphony, and highly ornamented melodic lines.    Much use is made of both vocal and instrumental color.

All of this is on display in Messiah.

  Our Approach

Before we get started on the details, I’d like to discuss a few things that are important; as a matter of fact I would go so far as to say that these may be the most important things I would like you to take from this article, and it all relates to how you approach Handel’s Messiah, and then how you listen to it.

Messiah  obviously has a religious story to it.  However, I want you to approach this work and listen to it as it was intended to be listened to – as entertainment that has a religious story, not something primarily intended to be performed in a church.    More so than many other composers, Handel was an entertainer first and wrote pieces intended to be popular entertainment.  As you know, at that time there were no televisions, no movies and no radios.  Not everyone could read.  But people could and did go to operas, musical theatres and the like.   Handel had become famous in England writing Italian style opera, a form of popular entertainment.

However, by the 1730’s, Italian opera was fading in popularity, and there was some cultural and religious backlash against the excessive staging and stories of Italian opera, so Handel turned to the oratorio form of music.  (An oratorio is similar to an opera, without the staging, costumes and acting, and is usually based upon a sacred text.    Oftentimes, there will be more pieces for the chorus and less for the soloists than in an opera, as well. )    Handel’s oratorios became a popular form of entertainment of the day, and this is how I would like you to approach this – as entertainment.  Handel is telling a story in two to three hours, using the medium of his time, just like Spielberg does today.

Please note – I do not mean to dismiss the sacredness of the work.  This was both a sacred and a familiar story to the people of the day.   I am saying to approach this with a sense that this is not heavy reverential music, this is a popular telling of a sacred yet familiar story.  The fact that it is indeed sacred, reverential and entertaining is a testament to Handel’s genius.

Also please realize that in my discussion, yours or my faith does not matter – whether you believe in Christianity or not is irrelevant to this discussion.  However, remember that the people that this was written for did believe, and that the music has been written to convey the emotions of the story of Christ.  Approach it that way and listen to how Handel tells the story, how he conveys the emotions, how he matches the words with the music, and how he entertains and inspires using the forms and conventions of his day.

Listen to All of Us!

And that takes me to my next point – how to listen.  Before we go on, bear with me on a bit of a basic music lesson (and if you know this already, please forgive me).

All music can be broken down into three basic types – monophonic, homophonic and polyphonicThis is related to how the music treats two of the building blocks of music, melody and harmony.

  • Monophony – A single melodic line, unaccompanied by harmony or other melodies.  Think Gregorian chant.
  • Homophony – A single dominant melody line, accompanied by harmonic parts, usually in a chordal fashion.   Often all parts roughly move in the same rhythmic fashion.  Much pop/rock music, and what we are now most familiar with listening to, is homophonic.
  • Polyphony – Multiple melodic lines, weaving in and out together, often with their own independent rhythm.  Harmony is present, created by the combination of the various melodies.  Think of a round, or Pachelbel’s Canon in D.  However, the melodies do not have to be the SAME melody however, like in these two examples.

Within a piece, these are not mutually exclusive, a composer can and will go back and forth between these styles many times in one work.

Now although each of these types are used in all periods, the Baroque period was the heyday of polyphonic music (Baroque masters could write polyphony in their sleep I think!).   Handel in his choruses will bounce back and forth between homophony and polyphony, but as you listen to the choruses in Messiah, it is vital that you open your ears and understand that polyphony is different from the more familiar homophony.    Realize that much of the time you are not listening to a single dominant melodic line with supporting parts, but multiple melody lines moving at the same time in their own rhythm.  Try to listen to all of the parts simultaneously – don’t focus on just the sopranos for example, because none of the parts are pre-eminent.

Listen to the multiple melodies weaving in and out, then switching to chordal homophony and back to polyphony,  and listen to the whole of what is happening – both vocal and instrumental parts.     It takes a little getting used to but it’s really quite incredible.

Paint that….. text?

The other thing to listen to is something called text painting. This is a simple concept, really, and something you may already be subconsciously aware of – it is the musical technique of writing music that reflects the literal meaning of he text.  For example, if you are singing the word mountain, those notes on the word mountain may be the peak of the melody.  The word valley may be sung on lower notes, or notes that drop down.  Baroque composers did a lot of this, and Handel was a master of it.  It was expected by audiences of the day, and was a way of getting the meanings across.  This was entertainment after all!  I will talk a little bit more on this as we look at some of the pieces in Messiah.

How do you say that again?

A composer writing vocal music will place his words carefully, making sure that strong syllables are on strong beats, that the correct words in a phrase or the correct parts of words are musically emphasized.

When writing Messiah, Handel used a practice common in English poetry of the day, where  the suffix –ed of the past tense and past participle of weak verbs was often pronounced as a separate syllable.  Hence we have words such as ‘turned’ and ‘bruised’ pronounced as two distinct syllables, or ‘revealed’ and ‘despised’ as three syllables.

A little background

Handel’s Messiah is a Baroque piece written in 1741.  You can find many recordings of this piece in many different styles and flavors but my very favorite is John Eliot Gardiner’s recording with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists put out by Philips.  This uses period instruments and stylings (along with counter-tenors!).  Much of my commentary will relate best to this recording.

Why this one?  This goes to my preferences, which you will see as we go on – but first a little history.

You may or may not have seen this, but in 1993 a recording was put out called Young Messiah.  This was updated and made into a production in 2006, and was created for “…-interpreting the music in a modern idiom, with popular artists…” and was done so that “… this new version will … be immediately accessible to a much wider audience.”  The interesting thing about this is that interpreting Messiah for contemporary tastes has been done since the late 18th century!

Classical period musical tastes were much different from the Baroque period, almost rebelling against the ornamental displays of the Baroque, and much of the Baroque music was not played.  Wolfgang Mozart, recognizing the genius of Handel, re-orchestrated the work in 1789 in an attempt to make it accessible to the Classical audience of his day.  Mozart’s version and a similar edition by Ebenezer Prout, were commonly heard throughout the Victorian era and up until the mid-20th century.

(So if you are listening to a recording and hear flutes or clarinets, chances are you are listening to one of these versions.)

Throughout the Victorian period, performances of Handel’s Messiah were common – but these performances were not quite as Handel envisioned them.    Now, please realize that many modern recordings of any work are not always as the composer heard them, for a number of reasons.  Each artist will (and should) interpret the music as they envision it; modern instruments may be much different than their counterparts of the day; and playing styles / idioms may be different.  But the Victorians took Handel to an extreme, constantly increasing the size of the choir and the orchestra, while also imbuing the music with the Romantic period’s feel of emotionalism and sonority.

I am all for artistic interpretation, and I learned to love Messiah listening to a record (yes it was vinyl) of a very Victorian performance of Messiah.  However, in this article I would I encourage you to listen to Messiah closer to how Handel intended.   The choir and orchestra are smaller, the balance between the two is restored, and Baroque performance idioms are observed.  In addition, the use of period instruments and period orchestral balance (how many of each type of instrument) gives the piece a much lighter feel.  This is not a ponderous Messiah, it dances.

Can you recite this?

Messiah is primarily made up of recitatives, arias and choruses.

Recitative – a narrative song that describes an action, thought or emotion.  A recitative is more like speaking musically than singing, and is used to advance a lot of text in a short time.  The word means ‘to recite’ or ‘to tell’

Aria – A more musical song, usually a solo.

Chorus – A musical song sung by a choir.


Handel’s Messiah is an oratorio made up of 47 different musical pieces, mostly (but not entirely) recitatives, arias and choruses.   These pieces are, like an opera, divided into three acts.  However, Messiah is unusual in that unlike most operas or oratorios, the story is not told in dramatic form with characters.  Instead it is a reflective piece on the Messiah:

  • Act One is primarily concerned with the Advent and Christmas stories.
  • Act Two chronicles Christ’s passion, resurrection, ascension, and the proclamation to the world of the Christian message.
  • Act Three is based primarily upon the events chronicled in the Book of Revelation.

The libretto was put together by Charles Jennens, consisting primarily of verses from the King James Bible and some from the Great Bible.  The libretto itself is a work of art, and I would highly recommend anyone with a literary interest to simply read the text alone and see how Jennens uses the biblical verses.   Interestingly enough, though the work is about the Messiah, much of the text comes from the Old Testament and not the New Testament, with very few quotations from the Gospels themselves.  This includes the Easter passion section, which comes from Isaiah 53, one of most beautiful texts in the English language.

Lastly, before we get into the detail, there is no definitive version of Messiah.  A number of the pieces, primarily arias, have multiple versions.  Handel made these alterations based upon the needs and availability of the singers and orchestra he had available for each performance.   Thus you may hear “For he is like a refiner’s fire” for either alto or soprano, for example, depending on the recording you are listening to.  I will put the text of the pieces I mention in italics.

A short walk through!

Lastly, I’d like to take a quick walk through some of the pieces in Messiah, highlighting things I personally find interesting.  For space purposes, I cannot mention every piece, but I encourage you to listen to the whole thing!  The numbers are the number of the piece.

1.  Sinfonia  – The overture, one of only two purely instrumental pieces in the work.

2. Comfort YeComfort ye, comfort ye, My people, saith your God.  Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.  The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  (Isaiah 40:1-3)

A recitative, showing the purpose of advancing a lot of text in a small amount of time.

3. Ev’ry Valley  – Ev’re valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight and the rough places plain (Isaiah 40:4). 

A tenor aria, this piece is often quoted as a pre-eminent example of text painting (see above).    Note:  I will not bring much actual music into the discussion, but for this one you can even see the text painting in the shape of how the music runs, and see what a melisma is.  So bear with me!

On the text “…and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain,” Handel composes it thus:


The notes climb to the high F on the first syllable of mountain, and then drop an octave on the second syllable. The four notes on the word hill form a small hill, and the word low descends to the lowest note of the phrase. On crooked, the melody twice crookedly alternates between C and B to rest on the B for two beats through the word straight. The word plain is written, for the most part, plainly on the high E for three bars, with some minor deviation. He applies the same strategy throughout the repetition of the final phrase: the crookeds being crooked and plain descending on three lengthy planes. He uses this technique frequently throughout the rest of the aria, specifically on the word exalted, which contains several 16th-note melisma and two leaps to a high E.  He is exalting the word exalted.


Meli… what???  That’s just too many notes!

Handel’s music, like much of Baroque music, is filled with something called melisma.  Quite simply, a melisma is the singing of a single syllable of text while moving between several different notes in succession. 

Music sung in this style is called melismatic, as opposed to syllabic, where each syllable of a text is matched to a single note.



11. For Unto Us – For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.  (Isaiah 9:6)

This is one of the more familiar choruses and was in fact adapted from an earlier duet by Handel.  (This was not unusual – Handel being the pragmatist that he was, often stole from himself!).     In this piece, listen to Handel effortlessly moves back and forth between polyphony for much of the piece, and homophony for the Wonderful Counselor section, with the strings almost forming a halo around the choir in that section.  Also note that the word called gets two syllables.

12. Pastoral – the other instrumental piece, Handel is setting the stage for the pastoral fields outside of Bethlehem.

12a. – There were shepherds – There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.  (Luke 2:8)

The first of four very short recitatives that run together. In this recording they are all sung by a boy soprano.

13. And lo, the angel of the Lord – And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.  (Luke 2:9)

13a. And the Angel Said Unto Them – And the angel said unto them: Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you this day is born in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)

14. And Suddenly – And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying:  (Luke 2:13)

15.  Glory to God – Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, goodwill towards men.  (Luke 2:14)

I would recommend listening to this chorus preceded by the four very short recitatives leading into it.  This chorus is the first time Handel brings in brass instruments (trumpets only), done very lightly, as the angels announce Jesus’ birth.  Notice the text painting on the word highest – the whole choir does not go up, but the tenors soar every time on the first syllable, and the voices are arranged such that this is what the ear hears.   Listen to how peacefulness of the ‘peace on earth’ phrase, and the suppressed excitement of both the strings and the choir in the first, homophonic, section until the choir breaks out in joyous polyphony announcing the good news of goodwill towards men.  Then the orchestral end – many composers may have ended with fanfares but not Handel here.  The angels fade away quietly and lightly into the wispy, starry night….

16. RejoiceRejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem!  Behold, thy King cometh unto thee; He is the righteous Savior, and He shall speak peace unto the heathen.  (Zechariah 9:9-10) 

A joyful and virtuoso soprano aria, in this recording it is the lesser seen version in the time signature of 12/8, which I adore.  It is light, agile and dance-like.  Listen to how the strings and soprano continually play off of each other.

19. Behold the Lamb of God – Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world. (John 1:29)

One of the slower choruses, with beautiful harmonies and a majestic sadness.  

20. He was despised (not included tonight due to length) – He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3).   He gave His back to the smiters and His cheeks to them that plucked off the hair; He hid not His face from shame and spitting (Isaiah 50:6) 

An aria, this may be quite long and slow for modern tastes.  It is a hauntingly beautiful setting , however, but I mention it here simply because I find the term ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’ incredibly poetic and touching.

21. SurelySurely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows!  He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon Him.         (Isaiah 53: 4-5). 

A short chorus, this is one of my very favorites.  The strings come in with a rhythmic pattern that audiences of the day would know to associate with a scourging, and the choir comes in with conviction.  Listen to the phrasing of the words, but especially close your eyes and listen to the beautiful harmonies, with dissonant suspensions and resolutions all through the middle section, and the tenors hanging on the high notes of ‘chastisement’.   I can just let the music of this one wash over me as the music aches with the text.

22. And With His Stripes – And with His stripes we are healed.  (Isaiah 53:5)

A choral fugue, Mozart used this same exact melody in a double fugue for the Kyrie in his Requiem.

23. All We Like Sheep – All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way.  And the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.  (Isaiah 53:6)

 Another of my favorites, this is a fascinating piece due to the text painting Handel does here, and his treatment of the text.  There is fun in this, but he gets across the point of the verse across in a striking way.    There is so much here, let’s start with the string basses.  Listen to them as they bounce around, almost like sheep wandering around the hillside…. Wait, look at the text!  They are!  Meanwhile the choir is declaring that we are all like sheep, going astray.  Note how the phrase ‘going astray’ indeed musically goes nowhere, every time you hear it.  Then the melisma  on the word turned….. which if you listen, musically turns round and round, going nowhere, before stubbornly declaring on one note ‘ every one to his own way’.    The choir goes on for two to three minutes with this text, depicting sheep stubbornly going this way and that way, turning round and round, going astray, each vocal part polyphonically going off on its own… until finally, the culmination of all this foolishness… ‘and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all’.  Note how Handel spent almost three minutes on man’s foolishness, and then the last bit emphasizes the text, Him.

24. All They That See HimAll they that see Him laugh Him to scorn;  they shoot out their lips, and shake their heads, saying:    (Psalm 22:7) 

A short tenor recitative, getting out the text that leads to the next chorus.   Note the violin mimicking the words.

25. He Trusted in God – He trusted in God that He would deliver Him; let Him deliver Him, if He delight in Him   (Psalm 22:8)

This chorus is often the first piece I listen to when I ‘test out’ a new recording of Messiah.   The recording I listened to growing up took this as a funeral dirge, as Christ’s funeral walk to Calvary, and I usually skipped it.   However, listen to it now as Handel intended… as an angry crowd taunting and laughing as He carries the cross through the streets.    It’s a quick fugue, not a funeral march, and taken quickly, Handel’s true intent comes out.  The choir/crowd spits out the consonants, jeering at Him.  Listen to each part, and then notice that Handel puts the melisma on the word delight.   Why that word?  Is that the most important word of the phrase?  Not at all… Handel knew that a singer (or choir) would not sing a melisma with the long i sound of delight, they would always sing it as ‘ah’, as in delaht.  Now listen to the arc and rhythm of the melisma as each part sings it, and the intent is clear as each part of the crowds laughs at the ‘fool’ who thought that God would deliver him.  A cruel piece, and a wonderful bit of word painting.

26.  Thy Rebuke  – Thy rebuke has broken His heart; He is full of heaviness.  He looked for some to have pity on Him, but there was no ma, neither found He any to comfort Him.   (Psalm 69:20)

  A simple tenor recitative, not even an aria.  After the jeering crowd of the previous choir, listen to the aching loneliness of this, as even the orchestra is barely there.

27. Behold and See – Behold and see if there be any sorrow, like unto His sorrow. (Lamentations 1:12)

A natural follow on aria to the previous, the ending is heartbreakingly beautiful.   

35. Their Sound is Gone Out – Their sound is gone out into all lands and their words unto the end of the world.  (Romans 10:18 / Psalm 19:4)

Notice how the choir imitates trumpets in the first phrase.  Then wonder, why didn’t Handel actually use trumpets?

36.  Why Do the NationsWhy do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing?  The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord, and against His anointed.  (Psalm 2:1-2)

  A bass aria – have you ever heard a bass voice move this fast?  The strings are raging in a pattern many of the time would know as conveying either anger or flames, and the singer sings in a bravura, flamboyant Italian opera style that even then was going out of style.  Some would say that Handel used that style intentionally as a way to show the vanity and ego of man, as the verse states.

37. Let Us Break Our Bonds – Let us break our bonds asunder, and cast away their yokes from us. (Psalm 2:3)

A chorus with the most difficult entrance in the work.

37a. He the Dwelleth – He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn, the Lord shall have them in derision. (Psalm 2:4)

38.  Thou Shalt Break Them – Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron, thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.  (Psalm 2:9)

39.  Hallelujah  – Hallelujah, for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth!  (Revelation 19: 6)   The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!  (Revelation 11:15)  King of Kings and Lord of Lords!  (Revelation 19: 16) 

Probably the greatest choral piece in English and arguably in any language, who hasn’t heard this?  But if you are only used to large choirs and a ponderous Hallelujah Chorus, listen again. With a smaller choir and properly balanced orchestra, this becomes an incredibly joyous piece.  Remember what I said earlier, and open your ears for all the parts, especially as parts take turns singing ‘For the Lord God Omnipotent Reigneth’ whiole the other parts dance around it, “Hallelujah!”.  This is polyphony at its best, all the parts, including orchestral, are important.   This is a worship song, pure and simple, and whatever your beliefs are,  there is no denying that the music conveys the text in incredible fashion.   And speaking of the orchestra – remember I had mentioned how Handel was avoiding brass?  So far there had only been the light trumpet announcing the Messiah’s birth.    Handel knew what he was doing here.  The audience has been listening to Messiah for somewhere around (or more than) two hours, and finally he brings in full brass, and for the first time drums.  We all know the effect of drums on people, Handel has been waiting for the moment and finally they come in with this text.  The emotional effect of the orchestration with this sublime music married to this text is second to none.

If you are too ‘familiar’ with the Hallelujah Chorus, I encourage you to listen with new ears, with open ears.  Listen to every part, to the orchestra, and listen to how Handel fits the polyphony and homophony together.   It is truly an amazing work.


Why are we standing?

In many parts of the world, it is tradition to stand during the Hallelujah Chorus.  The tradition is said to have originated with the first London performance of Messiah, which was attended by King George II.   As the first notes of the Hallelujah Chorus rang out, the king rose to his feet, remaining standing until the end of the chorus.  Royal protocol demanded that when the king stood, everyone stood, so the entire audience rose as well, starting the tradition. 


41. Since by Man – Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall be made alive.  (I Corinthians 15:21-22)

A chorus of contrasts, as Handel uses the music to paint the picture of Paul’s essential message.

 43.  The Trumpet Shall Sound!The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.  For this corruptible must put on corruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.  (I Corinthians 15: 52-53).  A famous bass aria, this is essentially a duet between the singer and a solo trumpet.

47.  Worthy is the Lamb – Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing.  Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.  Amen.  (Revelations 5:12-14)

A hymn of praise to end the Messiah, Handel brings back the brass and drums.  The Amen is a majestic chorus.

I could go on and on, but this is probably more than enough.  I encourage you to sit back and listen to the refined yet highly ornamented music of the Baroque, opening your ears to polyphonic music, and enjoy the story Handel is telling!


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