The Handel Institute
The Handel Institute


(HWV 56)

"A Sacred Oratorio"

Composed 22 August—14 September 1741, London
First Performed 13 April 1742, Great Music Hall, Fishamble Street, Dublin 

The establishment of Messiah as a venerated Christmas tradition and staple fodder for choral societies has a long and complicated history. A few excerpts are familiar to almost everybody, unlike any other work by its prolific and misunderstood composer. Messiah remains Handel's best-known work, although this was not a status that it enjoyed until the last few years of his life, brought about by annual performances in his oratorio seasons and benefit concerts at the Foundling Hospital (a charity for underprivileged children that still exists today as The Thomas Coram Foundation). It was not envisaged as a Christmas work; its microcosm of Christian doctrine and faith was intended as a timely thought-provoker for Lent and Easter. 

The popularity of the work grew through events such as the Handel Centenary Commemoration (Westminster Abbey, 1784) and huge-scale Victorian epic performances by thousands of singers and enormous orchestras crammed into the Crystal Palace. All such events progressively strayed further from Handel's musical world, attempting to make choirs and orchestras ridiculously large, often with 'new' parts created for extra instruments. However, ill-advised 'improvements' grew to such an extent that by the early 20th century editors and conductors had distorted Messiah beyond its Handelian origins. Perhaps it is such misunderstandings that led Berlioz to describe Handel's music as "a barrel of roast pork and beer" - the French innovator of romanticised orchestration failed to recognise Handel's merits. The overwhelming popularity of Messiah not only led to a misconception of Handel's musical character and artistic intentions, but also eclipsed almost every other work he composed except the Water Music and Fireworks Music - both also highly untypical of his orchestral abilities. 

Handel, a cosmopolitan and versatile theatrical composer, was born and trained in Germany, achieved mastery and success in every musical genre while in Italy, and then settled for nearly five decades in England, during which time he assimilated all those nations' musical styles. He specialised in operas and oratorios - all works intended for performance in theatres. Most of his oratorios were dramatic narratives, functioning like English operas composed for concert performances at either the King's Theatre or Covent Garden. Most are based on Biblical or religious stories, but a few works, such as Semele and Hercules, are blatantly not oratorios but instead secular classical concert dramas. Even Messiah, which does not tell a story in conventional terms and is therefore unlike almost all of his other oratorio-style works, has ample evidence of Handel's talents as an operatic composer. 

Charles JennensThe libretto for Messiah was designed and selected from the New and Old Testaments with utmost care by Charles Jennens (170073), a literary scholar and editor of Shakespeare's plays who was educated at Balliol College, Oxford. Notwithstanding his merit and ability, Jennens never gained a degree or much recognition from society because he was a non-juror, refusing to acknowledge the Hanoverian dynasty as legitimate heirs to the throne of Britain. Yet nor could Jennens be a Jacobite (i.e. a supporter of the deposed Catholic Stuarts) because he was staunchly Protestant. However, Jennens' inherited wealth enabled him to live in some comfort at a fine house in Gospall, Leicestershire, and he devoted his time to artistic, literary and cultural pursuits in the absence of a prominent public life. 

Jennens had supported Handel's music since at least 1725, when he commenced regular subscriptions for publications of Handel's music by ordering a copy of Rodelinda. By the mid-1730s Jennens was personally acquainted with Handel, and before Messiah had already furnished Handel with texts for the dramatic oratorio Saul (1739), collaborated on the extensive masque L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il moderato (1740), and later also provided the text for the striking masterpiece Belshazzar (1745). He had probably also been involved with Handel's only other scriptural oratorio Israel in Egypt (1739). Despite a difficult working relationship - in the later 1740s and early 1750s Handel collaborated with more amenable writers - Jennens remained a life-long admirer and supporter of Handel's music. His own personal library of Handel manuscripts, the 'Aylesford' Collection (most of it now at Manchester Central Library), was copied by Handel's assistants from the autograph scores, and remains a priceless resource for Handel scholars. 

The first draft of Messiah was composed at Handel's usual quick speed, and was probably intended for a forthcoming London concert series. However, events took an unpredictable twist when Handel was invited to perform a subscription series of concerts in Dublin, probably at the behest of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, William Cavendish, the 3rd Duke of Devonshire. Handel's visit coincided with the opening of the new Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street, where the composer directed two short series of subscription concerts between 23 December 1741 and 7 April 1742. Having already stayed in Ireland longer than expected, Handel ran out of suitable old works to perform, so unexpectedly organised the first performance of Messiah, held in aid of several Dublin charities rather than for his own benefit. Excitement was so high that even the rehearsal on 9 April was strictly ticketed. In order to make enough room for the audience at the official first performance, newspaper advertisements requested that ladies should not wear hooped skirts, and gentlemen were "desired to come without their Swords." It was estimated that the Great Music Hall's capacity was 600, but about 700 people crammed in to hear the premiere of Messiah on 13 April 1742.

Upon his return home to London, Handel gave Jennens a copy of the wordbook that had been printed in Dublin without the author's involvement. Annoyed by error-strewn misrepresentation of his intentions in print, Jennens was also disappointed when he saw the music; he complained to his friend Edward Holdsworth (letter dated 17 January 1743) that Handel had set it "in great hast, tho' he said he would be a year about it, & make it the best of all his Compositions". A month later, on 21 February, Jennens told Holdsworth that Handel still had an opportunity to fix the weaker parts: "I have said a great deal to him on the Subject; but he is so lazy & so obstinate, that I much doubt the Effect", and the success of the new oratorio Samson only served to increase Jennens' "resentment for his neglect of the Messiah." Newspaper advertisements for the belated first London performance on 19 March 1743 referred to the work obliquely as 'A New Sacred Oratorio', perhaps not daring to draw attention to a sacred work entitled Messiah being performed in a sordid playhouse.

The theological concept for Jennens' scriptural collection was unlike any oratorio (English or otherwise) that had yet been written. It was designed as a sublime manifesto of the divinity of Jesus Christ, in part as a reaction to the increase of rationalized atheism and Deism. A devout High Anglican, Jennens selected scriptures from fourteen books of the Old and New Testaments, thereby presenting a microcosm of Christian doctrine and faith that was a suitably solemn entertainment for Lent. The title-page of the wordbook featured a motto from Virgil's Fourth Eclogue: "Majora canamus" ('Let us sing of greater things'), placed next to Biblical quotations from 1 Timothy 3:16 and Colossians 2:3 that clarified these 'greater things' are the wisdom and knowledge of Christian faith. The corrected edition of the wordbook published in London (1743) was probably supervised more closely by Jennens; it subdivided the contents of the three parts into 'scenes' headed by Roman numerals: Part 1 commences with Old Testament prophecies of Christ's coming, and considers what the arrival of the Messiah will portend for the world; it is followed by prophecies of the virgin birth, and then the pastoral scene in which the angels appear to the shepherds, proclaiming Jesus' birth; the first part concludes with a consideration of Christ's redemptive miracles during his mortal ministry. Part 2 concentrates on the Messiah's redemptive sacrifice, the passion story (from his scourging through to the crucifixion), his sacrificial death, the resurrection, his ascension back to heaven, and God's eventual triumph over those who reject the gospel. Part 3 applies the doctrine of physical resurrection and spiritual redemption to all of us, prominently exhorting man's mortality and the Day of Judgment, and concluding the oratorio with worshipful praise of Jesus Christ.

Handel supervised a total of thirty-six performances of Messiah during his lifetime, and the different circumstances for each revival required the music to be adapted, rewritten, transposed, abridged or expanded. This means that there is no single definitive musical text for Messiah because of the many changes its composer was obliged to make during the seasons it was performed. For example, a choral version of 'Their sound is gone out' replaced a less effective setting of the words in a passage of the first version of 'How beautiful are the feet'. It was probably in about 1745 that 'Rejoice greatly' (originally a bucolic 12/8 aria) was recomposed in common 4/4 time. Likewise, a new spectacular virtuoso setting of 'But who may abide' was composed for the alto castrato Guadagni in 1750. It was also in 1750 that Handel initiated annual charity performances at the chapel of the Foundling Hospital, held each May after his Covent Garden concert seasons had ended. If modern performers seek to adhere to one of Handel's own authentic versions of the score, the most commonly satisfying solutions are reconstructions of versions dating from the early 1750s. Apocryphal tales about Handel's composition, rehearsal and performances of Messiah are without foundation, but, like the dubious tradition of standing up during the 'Hallelujah' chorus, such legends retain their currency – perhaps because worldwide audiences still ardently desire to experience the oratorio within a deep-rooted tradition of manifold inspirations. We know nothing about what Handel himself thought of Messiah, but it is illuminating that both of his subsequent portraits by Thomas Hudson (c. 1748 and 1756 respectively) and his monument by Roubiliac in Westminster Abbey all accord pride of place to its score. 

© Dr David Vickers, 2020
Not to be used without permission from the author

Libretto (words) to Messiah

Messiah Editions

(in order of recommendation):

Clifford Bartlett: Messiah. Oxford University Press.

Donald Burrows: Messiah. Edition Peters.

John Tobin: Messiah. Bärenreiter (Hallische Händel Ausgabe).

Watkins Shaw: Messiah. Novello (New Novello Handel Series).

Recommended Recordings

1742 Dublin version (approximate reconstruction)

    Dunedin Consort & Players; John Butt / Linn CKD 285


1752 version (only authentic version for conventional SATB soloists):

    Choir of King's College, Cambridge; The Brandenburg Consort; Stephen Cleobury / Argo 440 672-2


1754 Foundling Hospital version (SSATB soloists):

    Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford; The Academy of Ancient Music; Christopher Hogwood / Decca (L'Oiseau Lyre) 430 488-2

    Taverner Choir, Taverner Players, Andrew Parrott / Virgin Veritas 561330-2


    Composite versions:

      The Monteverdi Choir; The English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner / Philips Digital Classics 4342972

      The Choir of the English Concert; The English Concert; Trevor Pinnock / DG Archiv 423 630-2

      Bach Collegium Japan; Masaaki Suzuki / BIS 891/892


    Comprehensive variants all included on:

      UC Berekely Chamber Chorus; Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra; Nicholas McGegan / Harmonia Mundi HMU 907050.52 (3 CDs)


    Mozart's arrangement (in German):

      Rheinische Kantorei; Das Kleine Konzert; Hermann Max / EMI Baroque Special CDS 7 54353 2 (reissued as EMI Classics 3511982)

      Namur Chamber Choir; Grande Ecurie et La Chambre du Roy; Jean-Claude Malgoire / Astrée-Audivis E8509


    Handel's Messiah: A Select Bibliography


    General Reading (in order of recommendation):

    Donald Burrows: Handel: Messiah. (Series: Cambridge music handbooks). Cambridge University Press, 1991. The definitive book for anybody wanting to read up on Messiah.

    Richard Luckett: Handel's Messiah: A Celebration. Victor Gollancz, London, 1992. An informative and well researched book commemorating the 250th anniversary of Messiah. An enjoyable well illustrated book that discusses Messiah during and after Handel's life.

    Watkins Shaw: The Story of Handel's Messiah: 17411784. Novello, Sevenoaks, 1963.

    Watkins Shaw: A textual and historical companion to Handel's Messiah. Novello, Sevenoaks, 1966. Intended to accompany Watkins Shaw's popular Novello edition of Messiah - one of the first respectable scholarly editions of the oratorio to be published.

    Julian Herbage: Messiah. Parrish, London, 1948. Enjoyable and nicely illustrated book, yet short. Clearly intended for enthusiastic non-specialists.

    Bernd Baselt: "Georg Friedrich Handels Messias" [Georg Friedrich Handel's Messiah] in Zwischen Bach und Mozart: Vortrage des Europaischen Musikfestes Stuttgart 1988. Barenreiter, Kassel, 1994. General introduction to Messiah written by the compiler of the HWV catalog.


    Literature for Performers:

    Percy M. Young: Messiah: A Study in Interpretation. Dobson, London, [n.d.]. An entertaining read for anybody with an interest in performing Messiah.

    Graydon Beeks: "Some thoughts on performing Messiah" in American Choral Review AprilJuly 1985. An argument that Handel's first draft autograph of Messiah - never used in performances - should be heard more often.

    William Gudger: "Playing organ continuo in Handel's Messiah" in American Organist Magazine February 1985. A suggestion of how Handel expected the organ to be used in his oratorios.


    Musicological studies of Messiah:

    John Tobin: Handel at Work. Cassell, London, 1964. An examination of Handel's compositional process as demonstrated by the original manuscripts of Messiah. Tobin edited Messiah for the Hallische Handel Ausgabe (published by Barenreiter), and was one of the first conducters in the 20th century to use performing forces on a similar scale and layout to Handel.

    Jens Peter Larsen: Handel's Messiah: Origins, composition, sources. Norton, New York, 1972.

    Watkins Shaw: "Handel: Some contemporary performance parts considered" in Eighteenth-century music in theory and practice: Essays in honor of Alfred Mann. Pendragon Press, New York. [n.d.] Discusses the work of various copyists in 18th century manuscripts of Messiah (and other works such as Deborah, the 'Utrecht' Te Deum, Samson, and early Italian works).

    Donald Burrows & Watkins Shaw: "Handel's Messiah: Supplementary notes on sources" in Music and Letters August 1995. A summary of important sources for Messiah discovered since 1965.

    Donald Burrows: "The autographs and early copies of Messiah: Some further thoughts" in Music & Letters July 1985. A follow up to the above article written with Watkins Shaw summarising recent research on Messiah.

    Hans Joachim Marx: "Zu den alternativen Fassungen von Handels Messias" [The alternative versions of Handel's Messiah] in Georg Friedrich Handel: Ein Lebensinhalt--Gedenkschrift fur Bernd Baselt (19341993). Handel-Haus Halle, 1995. A survey of the different versions of Messiah performed under Handel's own direction.

    Hans Joachim Marx: "Die "Hamburger" Direktionspartitur von Handels Messiah" [The "Hamburg" conducting score of Handel's Messiah] in Festschrift Klaus Hortschansky zum 60. Geburtstag. Schneider, Tutzing, 1995. An examination and re-evaluation of the Messiah conducting score.


    Some more specialist articles:

    David B. Greene: "Handel's Messiah: Music, theology, and ritual" in Soundings: A Music Journal Vol. 75; Issue 1; Spring 1992.

    Christian von Holst: "Der Messias in kunsthistorischer Sicht: Nachweis der betrachteten Kunstwerke" [Messiah in the perspective of art history: A list of art works viewed] in Zwischen Bach und Mozart: Vortrage des Europaischen Musikfestes Stuttgart 1988. Barenreiter, Kassel, 1994. Discusses twenty paintings demonstrating iconographic traditions relevant to Messiah.

    J. Merrill Knapp: "The Luke 2 portions of Bach's Christmas oratorio and Handel's Messiah" in A Bach tribute: Essays in honor of William H. Scheide. Barenreiter, Kassel, 1993. A comparison of the same source texts as used by Bach and Handel.

    Hans Joachim Kreutzer: "Von Handels Messiah zum deutschen Messias: Das Libretto, seine Ubersetzungen und die deutsche Handel-Rezeption des 18. Jahrhunderts." [From Handel's Messiah to the German Messias: The libretto, its translations, and Handel's reception in Germany in the 18th century.] in Obertone: Literatur und Musik--Neun Abhandlungen uber das Zusammenspiel der Kunste. Konigshausen & Neumann, Wurzburg, 1994.

    Alfred Mann: "Missa and Messiah: Culmination of the sacred drama" in A Bach tribute: Essays in honor of William H. Scheide. Barenreiter, Kassel, 1993. A comparison of the Protestant influence on major works by Bach and Handel.

    Werner Rackwitz: "Dramatische Aspekte in Handels Oratorium Messiah" [Dramatic aspects in Handel's oratorio Messiah] in Handel-Jahrbuch 1991. A discussion of the operatic musical styles in Messiah.

    David Schildkret: "On Mozart contemplating a work of Handel: Mozart's arrangement of Messiah" in Festa musicologica: Essays in honor of George J. Buelow. Pendragon Press, New York,1995. A discussion of Mozart's version of Messiah arranged for Gottfried van Swieten.

    Ruth Smith: "The achievements of Charles Jennens (17001773)" in Music & Letters May 1989. An overview of the life and writings of Charles Jennens, the compiler of Messiah and the author of some of Handel's best oratorio librettos.

    Howard Smither: "Messiah and progress in Victorian England" in Early Music August 1985. An examination of the role Messiah played in England during the Victorian era.


    The bibliography for Messiah is vast, and this list only represents a selection. Some of these books and articles will only be accessible through a good library. The most essential book Handel: Messiah by Donald Burrows is in print and available through any good bookshop. All references follow the bibliographical format of Author; Title; Journal or book (if relevant); Publisher; City; Date; Short description (where necessary).

    Unless explicitly specified otherwise, this page and all other pages at this site are Copyright © 2015 by David Vickers and Matthew Gardner credits

    Last updated: March 28, 2021  · Site design: Duncan Fielden, Matthew Gardner and David Vickers