Regardless of where you live, the odds are good that, during the Christmas season, someone is performing Handel’s Messiah in your area.
If you’ve never seen a performance of this masterful oratorio, or you can’t remember the last time you did, then you need to make this the year that you go. Here are three big reasons why.
1. The Composer’s Story Is Inspiring
George Frideric Handel was a child prodigy who composed operas as a teenager. By his 20s, he was the highest-paid composer in the world.
In time, however, audiences began chasing after newer artists, and Handel eventually went bankrupt. He became depressed, and stress brought on a palsy that crippled some of his fingers. “Handel’s great days are over,” wrote Frederick the Great.
Handel’s troubles, however, matured him. His temper mellowed. He softened his formerly sharp tongue. And his music became more heartfelt.
One day, the more mature Handel received from Charles Jennings a manuscript that was a collection of various Biblical texts about Jesus. The opening words, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,” moved Handel. He began to compose music for the manuscript.
Just 23 days later, the entire Messiah was complete. “Whether I was in the body or out of the body when I wrote it,” Handel said later, “I know not.”
Three weeks before Easter in 1743, Messiah opened to enormous crowds in London, with Handel leading from the harpsichord. Handel’s fame rose again.
Even after going blind, he continued to play the organ for performances of Messiah and his other oratorios until his death in 1759.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Radist
2. The Music Offers Something for Everyone
Every year, no other work is performed as often as Handel’s Messiah.
One reason is that the music offers something for everyone, including people who aren’t huge fans of classical music.
The entire Messiah is a huge work. It consists of over 50 pieces, or movements, that are grouped into three parts:
- Part I: prophecies about the Messiah and some highlights of the birth of Jesus
- Part II: the Passion and death of Jesus
- Part III: the resurrection of the dead and the glorification of Jesus in heaven
Because performing the entire thing takes about three hours, most groups do just Part I and finish with the boisterous and popular “Hallelujah Chorus,” which actually is the last piece in Part II. This shortened version of Messiah, affectionately called the “Christmas portion,” clocks in at just over an hour.
The “Christmas portion” may be relatively short, but it gives you a ton of variety:
- Two orchestra-only pieces
- Solos by a soprano, an alto, a tenor, and a bass
- Seven numbers for the entire chorus
Some of the solos are slow and somber. Others are upbeat. The choral parts are a mix of everything, with spectacular harmonies. In the orchestra, the strings carry most of the load, but the woodwinds offer a great counterpoint, and the horns punctuate the highest moments.
It’s a feast for the ears and the soul.
3. The Beautiful Lyrics Are Bible Passages
Handel didn’t add any words to the Bible passages given to him by Charles Jennings. So, Messiah is, essentially, Bible passages set to (extraordinary) music.
Here are the pieces in the “Christmas portion” of Messiah, with the lyrics included:
Orchestra: Symphony Opening
Tenor solo: Isaiah 40:1-4
Comfort 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. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low: the crooked straight, and the rough places plain:
Chorus: Isaiah 40:5
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”
Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Yet once a little while, and I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land; And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come.
The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts.
Alto solo: Malachi 3:2
But who may abide the day of his coming? And who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner's fire:
Chorus: Malachi 3:3
And he shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.
Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel: God with us.
O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain; O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God! Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.
Bass solo: Isaiah 60:2-3
For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.
Bass solo: Isaiah 9:2
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.
Chorus: Isaiah 9:6
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, Counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
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Orchestra: Pastoral Symphony
Soprano solo: Luke 2:8-11, 13
And there were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
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. 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 is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Chorus: Luke 2:14
Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will toward men.
Soprano solo: Zechariah 9:9-10
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee. He is the righteous savior, and shall speak peace unto the heathen.
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing. He shall feed his flock like a shepherd, and he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.
Soprano solo: Matthew 11:28-29
Come unto him all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and he will give you rest. Take his yoke upon you, and learn of him; for he is meek and lowly of heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
Chorus: Matthew 11:30
His yoke is easy; his burden is light.
Hallelujah: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. King Of Kings, And Lord Of Lords. The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.
Handel’s Messiah celebrates Biblical prophecies about Jesus. It offers the words of the angels at the first Christmas. We all join in the heavenly praises from the Book of Revelation. All of this...set to amazing music that was inspired by God over 250 years ago.
Handel’s Messiah. Experience it this Christmas season.
And rejoice. Rejoice! Rejoice greatly!
Chris Bolinger is the author of Daily Strength for Men, a 365-day daily devotional from BroadStreet Publishing. The book is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Christian Book Distributors, DailyStrengthForMen.com, and other retailers.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Eleonora Grigorjeva