Four things you might not know about Handel’s Messiah

handelIn Music History, the Messiah is every bit an annual Christmas tradition as eggnog and overworked shopping mall Santas. The Messiah was an oratorio which premiered in 1742 when the German-born Handel was the preeminent composer in his adopted home of the United Kingdom. Handel’s name drew such a crowd,  that audience members were advised to leave their hoop skirts and swords at home for fear of overcrowding. But as much of a tradition as Handel’s work has become, many modern audiences might not know just how it came to be and how it came to dominate the Yule time orchestra calendar.

  1. Believe it on not, a lot of people thought it was blasphemous. Given the oratorio’s sacred subject matter and Handel’s note on his original manuscript that read “To God alone the glory,” it’s hard to imagine that any audience could have interpreted the music as anything less than devout.However, opera and classical composers were often the subject of moral outrage in the 1700s. During a 1727 performance of a Handel opera, two leading sopranos came to blows onstage while the audience rooted them on.
  2. Guess what? It is not a Christmas piece. Librettist Charles Jennens, who was a close friend and collaborator with Handel, used the biblical stories of Jesus for the Messiah’s text. Jennens described his work as “a meditation of our Lord as Messiah in Christian thought and belief.”But only the first third of the work was about the birth of Jesus. The second act covers the death of Jesus and the third focused on his resurrection. As such, the piece was originally conceived as a work for Easter and was premiered in the spring during the Lent season.
  3. Turns out, it was written incredibly fast. Handel wrote the original version of Messiah in three to four weeks. Most historic accounts estimate the composer spent only 24 days writing the oratorio.What makes this even more astounding is the sheer scale of the 259-page score.  At a little more than three weeks of 10-hour days, that means Handel would have had to keep a continuous pace writing 15 notes a minute.
  4. Rumour has it, King George II stood during the Hallelujah Chorus.   An often repeated legend about Messiah tells the story of King George II who was so moved by the Hallelujah Chorus, that he rose to his feet and then everyone in attendance followed suit as not to be sitting when the king stood.  However, according to various experts, there is no truth to this story. In fact there is no evidence King George II was even in attendance, and it is unlikely the newspaper writers that were in the audience would have overlooked mentioning a royal presence.
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