George Frederick Handel

Messiah, oratorio, HWV 56

    Description by Brian Robins

    With the arguable exception of the Water Music, the oratorio Messiah is the one work of Handel's which is universally known. Yet it was composed at a time when Handel's fortunes were at a low ebb. His final attempt to return to opera with Imeneo (1740) and Deidamia (1741) had proved a failure, and rumor even had it that, having despaired of the London public, he was preparing to leave England. Fortuitously, the clergyman and writer Charles Jennens, Handel's collaborator in Saul, lured Handel back to the idea of English oratorio; at much the same time, the composer received an offer from William Cavendish, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, to take part in the following season of oratorio performances in Dublin. The libretto offered to Handel by Jennens was based around the birth and Passion of Christ. It was called Messiah. Handel set to work on the libretto on August 22, 1741, completing the score just over three weeks later on September 12.

    The resulting sacred, non-dramatic oratorio was a first for Handel, and, although it heralded the composer's final great phase of oratorio composition, he never wrote one like it again. Messiah is therefore completely atypical within the context of Handel's oratorios, the majority of which relate to Old Testament or Apocryphal stories in dramatized form. As a statement of Christian faith it moves the worldly Handel closer to Bach than any other work of his, although not sufficiently to prevent contemporary accusations of operatic influences. It is also worth recalling that during Handel's day Messiah was more frequently performed in theaters than in churches.

    Jennens divided his text into three parts, the first of which deals with the Prophecy of the Messiah and its fulfillment. The second takes us from the Passion to the triumph of the Resurrection, while the final part deals with the role of the Messiah in life after death. Handel's setting consists of the usual juxtaposition of recitative, arias, and choruses. Jennens' libretto draws across a wide spectrum of both Old and New Testament sources, but uniquely among Handel's oratorios there are no named characters. The drama is thus articulated purely through the textual message, most powerfully through the overwhelming choruses that have ensured the enduring popularity of the oratorio. The first performance took place at the New Music Hall in Dublin on April 13, 1742. It was received with huge acclaim, the Dublin Journal proclaiming that "Messiah was allowed by the greatest Judges to be the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard." The following year the triumph was repeated at Covent Garden, when Handel added two more solos. Further revisions took place in 1745 at the famous Foundling Hospital performances, leaving all subsequent conductors with editorial problems as to Handel's "final" intentions. By the time of the composer's death in 1758 Messiah had already attained an iconic status it has never relinquished.

    Alongside its immensely popular choruses -- of which the "Hallelujah" is king -- Messiah's primary allure is its effective arias and recitatives for solo voices. The opening "Every Valley," sung by tenor, sets the tone for tunefulness and expressive charm, and is well-matched by the soprano's "Rejoice Greatly," the alto's "He was Despised" and the bass' "The Trumpet Shall Sound."

    Parts/Movements

    1. Sinfonia in E minor
    2. Comfort ye my people
    3. Ev'ry valley shall be exalted
    4. And the glory of the Lord
    5. Thus saith the Lord of Hosts
    6. But who may abide the day of His coming
    7. And He shall purify the sons of Levi
    8. Behold, a virgin shall conceive
    9. O thou that tellest good tiding to Zion
    10. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth
    11. The people that walked in darkness
    12. For unto us a Child is born
    13. Pifa in C major [Pastoral Symphony]
    14. There were shepherds abiding in the field
    15. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them
    16. But lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them (Arioso)
    17. And the angel said unto them
    18. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude
    19. Glory to God in the highest
    20. Rejoice greatly
    21. Then shall the eyes of the blind be open'd
    22. He shall feed His flock like a shepherd
    23. His yoke is easy, His burden is light
    24. Behold the Lamb of God
    25. He was despised and rejected
    26. Surely, He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows
    27. And with His stripes we are healed
    28. All we like sheep
    29. All they that see Him, laugh Him to scorn
    30. He trusted in God that He would deliver Him
    31. Thy rebuke hath broken His heart
    32. Behold, and see if there be any sorrow
    33. He was cut off out of the land of the living
    34. But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell
    35. Lift up your heads, O ye gates
    36. Unto which of the angels said He at any time
    37. Let all the angels of God worship Him
    38. Thou art gone up on high
    39. The Lord gave the word; great was the company of the preachers
    40. How beautiful are the feet of them
    41. Their sound is gone out into all the lands (Arioso)
    42. Their sound is gone out into all the lands (Chorus)
    43. Why do the nations so furiously rage together
    44. The Kings of the earth rise up
    45. Let us break their bonds asunder
    46. He that dwelleth in heaven
    47. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron
    48. Hallelujah
    49. I know that my Redeemer liveth
    50. Since by man came death
    51. Behold, I tell you a mystery
    52. The trumpet shall sound
    53. Then shall be brought to pass the saying
    54. O death, where is thy sting?
    55. But thanks to be to God
    56. If God be for us
    57. Worthy is the Lamb was slain
    58. Amen
    59. Thus saith the Lord of Hosts (Supplemental)

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2019 Resonus RES 10219
    2018 Proprius Music PRCD 2080
    2018 Naxos 857379899
    2018 OSJ Alive OSJCD 03
    2018 Profil - Edition Günter Hänssler PH 17015
    2017 The Gift of Music CCLCDG 1292
    2017 Alpha 362
    2017 Gramola GRAM 99135
    2016 Naxos 8573719
    2016 Mormon Tabernacle 5147225
    2016 Chandos CHSA 51762
    2016 Pan Classics PC 10351
    2016 Warner Classics 0190295975111
    2016 Sony Classical / Sony Music Distribution 88875173752
    2015 Brilliant Classics 95050BR
    2015 Helicon Classics 02.9664
    2015 BR Klassik 900510
    2014 Coro 16125
    2014 ABC Classics 4811332
    2014 L'Oiseau-Lyre / Decca 4786753
    2013 EMI Classics / Erato 5099961579
    2013 Archiv Produktion 002894791045AB55
    2013 Sparrow Records B 001908002
    2013 Sparrow Records
    2013 Sonoma SBDX2 031412
    2013 Haenssler / Haenssler Classic / Haenssler Classics 98022
    2013 Teldec 177615
    2012 Lim LIM 29
    2012 Tafelmusik Media TMK 1016CD2
    2012 Naïve V 5312
    2012 eOne / Light Records CPDCD 5803
    2011 Brilliant Classics 94214
    2011 Signum Classics SIGCD246
    2011 Sonoma Entertainment SBDX 20314
    2011 House of Classics 220304
    2011 EMI Classics 9187182
    2011 Harmonia Mundi HMX292192829
    2011 Decca
    2011 Avie AV 2208
    2011 Gala / Gala Records GL 100678
    2011 Guild Light Music GLCD 5185
    2010 Berlin Classics 0300065
    2010 Warner Classics
    2010 Decca
    2010 Newton Classics 8802032
    2010 Classics & Jazz / Deutsche Grammophon
    2010 Ars Musici 232374
    2010 Denon Records
    2010 Brilliant Classics 94032
    2010 Deutsche Grammophon / Universal 4779088
    2009 Carus 83219
    2009 Loft Recordings 0801
    2009 Hyperion 67800
    2009 Decca 4781190
    2009 Decca
    2009 EMI Classics
    2009 Brilliant Classics 93948
    2009 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099926815
    2009 Documents 232777
    2009 Berlin Classics 0184712
    2009 House of Classics 220108
    2008 Philips Classics 470044
    2008 Harmonia Mundi 2908280
    2008 EMI Classics 217645
    2008 Eloquence / Philips PHILIPS4800120
    2008 Coro 16062
    2008 TON 4 / Zebralution
    2008 Brilliant 93168
    2007 Brilliant Classics 93179
    2007 Philips / Universal Classics & Jazz
    2007 Arte Nova Classics 418490
    2007 Philips 464703
    2007 Hendrickson Worship 1085
    2007 Scandinavian Classics 220566-304
    2007 LSO Live 00607
    2007 Madacy 53090
    2007 K&K Verlagsanstalt 20
    2007 Urania URN 22312
    2007 Daywind / Vital 87
    2006 Musica Di Angeli 99181
    2006 Harmonia Mundi 5901498.99
    2006 Universal Classics & Jazz
    2006 Archiv Produktion 002894775904
    2006 EMI Classics 3511982
    2006 Signum UK 074
    2006 Harmonia Mundi 901928.29
    2006 Harmonia Mundi 801928
    2006 Universal Classics & Jazz
    2006 Universal Classics & Jazz
    2006 Clarion 919
    2006 Vanguard 1969
    2006 Naxos 8570131-32
    2006 Linn Records 285
    2005 ZYX Music 9700
    2005 Delos 3360
    2005 DHM Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 72039
    2005 Brilliant 92463
    2005 Decca 4756731
    2005 Decca 4756925
    2004 Nimbus 5709/10
    2004 Madacy 50354
    2004 Golden Classics / Madacy 3642
    2004 BMG 62317
    2004 Arts Music 45007
    2004 Archiv Produktion 000290236
    2004 Virgin 62390
    2004 Brilliant 92390
    2004 Haenssler 98434
    2004 Haenssler 98975
    2003 Apex 4608192
    2003 Arts Music 47627
    2003 EMI Music Distribution 575776
    2003 Naïve V 5321
    2003 Sheeba Music SHE-011
    2002 Sparrow Records 51560
    2002 Virgin 562004
    2002 Universal Distribution / Westminster 471232
    2002 EMI Classics 637842
    2002 ABC Classics 4726012
    2001 Classica d'Oro 1003
    2001 Deutsche Grammophon 471341
    2001 DTS Entertainment 1073
    2001 Madacy Distribution / Madacy 3300
    2000 CCT / EMI Music Distribution 694492A
    2000 Arabesque Z6743-2
    2000 Musica Di Angeli 99184
    1999 Harmonia Mundi 2901498
    1999 Madacy 02232
    1999 Grammofono 2000 7867172
    1999 Naxos 554511/12
    1999 BMG 09026 63317-2
    1999 Haenssler 98198
    1999 Nosag Records 2027
    1999 Laserlight / Delta Distribution 24830
    1999 Reference Gold 3627
    1998 Madacy 428
    1998 Sony Classical SM2K-60205
    1998 Biddulph Recordings WHL059-61
    1998 Onda
    1997 Deutsche Grammophon 453028
    1997 Dutton Laboratories 5010
    1997 BIS 891/2
    1997 Hyperion 22019
    1997 Berlin Classics 2124
    1996 Arts Music 447105
    1996 Virgin 561330-2
    1996 Carlton Classics / IMP Classics PCD-6700337
    1995 Capriccio Records 60068
    1995 London 444824
    1994 Harmonia Mundi 901498
    1994 Chesky Records 106
    1994 Naxos 550667/8
    1994 Argo 440672
    1993 EMI Music Distribution 671142
    1993 Vanguard 4018
    1993 Decca
    1993 Philips 438356
    1993 Erato 45960
    1993 Astree 8509
    1993 Pearl 9456
    1992 Harmonia Mundi 907050
    1992 Philips / PolyGram/Philips 434695
    1992 Telarc Distribution 80322
    1992 Philips
    1992 RCA 61266
    1992 EMI Music Distribution 7637842
    1992 Philips 434 297-2PH2
    1992 London 433740
    1992 Chandos 522/23
    1992 Naxos 550667
    1991 L'oiseau-Lyre 430488
    1990 EMI Music Distribution 49027
    1990 Philips 411041
    1988 Archiv Produktion 423630
    1985 CBS Records / Sony Classical / Sony Music Distribution 607
    1985 London 414396
    1984 Telarc Distribution 80093
    1984 Decca / Universal Classics & Jazz
    Carlton Classics 00117
    EMI Music Distribution 62748
    Madacy 2-12
    Excelsior Recordings 8166
    Philips Classics 412538
    EMI Music Distribution 63621
    Opening Day Recordings 9306
    Excelsior Recordings 25292
    Chandos 522
    Saga Classics 3343
    Guild 7112
    Teldec 77615
    Teldec 18952
    Koch Schwann 100308
    EXT 8166
    Erato 45447
    Allegro Corporation 1068
    Ton 4
    Rheingau Musik Festival 2
    Madacy 53406