What explains the durable popularity of Handel’s 'Messiah' (especially at Christmas)?

THE QUESTION: Handel’s oratorio “Messiah” — the Easter cantata that is so frequently heard at Christmastime — is probably the most-performed and most-beloved piece of great music ever written. What explains this long-running appeal?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Underlying this theme is the poignant reality that our culture and many of its churches are gradually losing historical moorings that include the excellent fine arts created in former times. So how and why does “Messiah,” which exemplifies the “classical” musical style and faith of 276 years ago, so hold its own today?

By most estimates, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) does not quite equal a peerless fellow German composer and a contemporary he never met, J.S. Bach (1685-1750). But in terms of popularity and number of performances, not to mention seasonal sing-alongs, this one among Handel’s 30 oratorios overshadows Bach’s monumental Christian works such as the “Christmas Oratorio,” “Mass in B Minor,” “St. John Passion” and “St. Matthew “Passion.”

Handel biographer Jonathan Keates tells the remarkable story of the famed oratorio in his 2017 book “Messiah: The Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece” — a good gift suggestion.

In a fit of inspiration, Handel dashed off all of his oratorio’s 53 sections in just three weeks. (Of course tunesmith Bach was expected to turn out a new choral number almost every week.) The first performance in the Easter season of 1742 — in Dublin, Ireland, instead of England — was a triumph.

The London premiere the following March is remembered because King George II stood during the “Hallelujah Chorus” and was imitated by the audience. Listeners have done the same ever since, a tribute normally limited to patriotic anthems. George never officially explained his deed. But it has always been assumed he believed a Christian king should express obeisance to the eternal “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” per the text sung from the Book of Revelation.

There was some trouble with the London gig.

Bluenoses thought it faintly blasphemous that a Christian oratorio was being performed in the secular Covent Garden theater instead of a church. They also found the work too hot for a sacred theme, perhaps unnerved by verbiage about a shaken Earth, purifying fire, furiously raging nations, and rulers broken by the Lord’s “rod of iron.”

Then there was the criticism leveled by one Charles Jennens, an important scholar and London taste-maker who edited pioneer editions of Shakespeare’s plays. The oratorio was “fine entertainment,” he granted, but “not near as good as he [Handel] might and ought have done” because the composer committed “the grossest faults.”

Continue reading “What explains the durable popularity of Handel’s 'Messiah'?”, by Richard Ostling.

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