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This is one of the longer pieces of music you’ll be listening to in this class, so you have a couple of ways to approach it. It is broken into 3 parts, so you could watch it straight through, taking breaks at each section. Or you could watch one section a day. Finally, if it’s just too long to watch, you could skip through and choose some of the more famous parts to listen to. They are marked in bold in the list beneath the video.

Before watching it, though, you may want to read this short story of historical fiction to provide some perspective on what he was going through before he wrote it. It is not necessary, however – what matters is listening to Messiah itself.

by Doron K. Antrim

One night in 1741, a bent old man shuffled listlessly down a dark London street. George Frederick Handel was starting out on one of the aimless, despondent wanderings which had become a nightly ritual. His mind was a battleground between hope, based on his past glories, and despair for the future. 

For 40 years Handel had written stately music for the aristocracy of England and the Continent. Kings and queens had showered him with honors. Then court society turned against him; jealous rivals put rowdies to breaking up the performances of his operas. Handel was reduced to penury.

Four years before, a cerebral hemorrhage had paralyzed his right side. He couldn’t walk, move his right hand or write a note. Doctors held out little hope of his recovery.

Handel went to Aix-la-Chapelle to take the healing baths. The doctors warned that staying in the scalding waters longer than three hours at a time might kill him. He stayed in nine hours at a time. Slowly strength crept back into his inert muscles. He could walk, move his hand. In an orgy of creativeness, he wrote several operas in quick succession. Honors were again heaped upon him.

When Queen Caroline, a staunch patroness, died, Handel’s income was again reduced. A frigid winter gripped England, and there was no way of heating the theaters, so engagements were canceled. As Handel sank deep er and deeper into debt, he lost his creative spark. Nearing 60, he felt old and hopelessly tired.

Now, as he walked alone on the London street, the facade of a church loomed dimly in the dark and he paused before it, bitter thoughts welling up in him. “Why did God permit my resurrection only to allow my fellow men to bury me again? Why did He vouchsafe a renewal of my life if I may no longer be permitted to create?” And then that cry from the depths: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”

Sadly he returned to his shabby lodgings. Entering, he saw a bulky package on his desk. He broke the seal and clawed off the wrappings. So, a libretto: “A Sacred Oratorio.” Handel grunted. From that second-rate, pampered poet, Charles Jennens. There was also a letter. Jennens expressed the wish that Handel start work immediately on the oratorio, adding: “The Lord gave the Word.”

Handel grunted again. Did Jennens have the effrontery to think he was inspired by God? Handel was not a pious man. He was always helping unfortunates, even when he could ill afford it, but he had a violent temper, was domineering and made enemies right and left. Listlessly Handel leafed through the oratorio and a passage caught his eye: “He was despised and rejected of men…. He looked for some to have pity on Him, but there was no man; neither found He any to comfort Him.”

With a growing sense of kinship, Handel read on. “He trusted in God…. Thou didst not leave his soul in Hell… He will give you rest.” The words began to come alive, to glow with meaning: “Wonderful, Counsellor,” “I know that my Redeemer liveth . . . Rejoice . .. Hallelujah.” Handel could feel the old fire rekindling. 

In his mind wondrous melodies tumbled over one another. Grabbing a pen, he started writing. With incredible swiftness the notes filled page after page. Next morning his manservant found Handel bent over his desk. Putting the breakfast tray within easy reach, he slipped quietly out. At noon, when he returned, the tray had not been touched.

An anxious time for the faithful old servant followed. The master would not eat. He’d take a piece of bread, crush it and let it fall to the floor—writing, writing all the while, jumping up and running to the harpsichord. At times he would stride up and down, flailing the air with his arms, singing at the top of his lungs: “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” the tears running down his cheeks.

“I’ve never seen him act like this before,” confided the servant to a friend. “He just stares at me and doesn’t see me. He said the gates of heaven opened wide for him and God himself was there. I’m afraid he’s going mad.” For 24 days Handel labored like a fiend, with little rest or food. Then he fell on his bed exhausted. On his desk lay the score of the Messiah—the greatest oratorio ever written.

Handel slept as though in a coma for 17 hours. His servant, thinking he was dying, sent for the doctor. But before the doctor arrived, Handel was up and bellowing for food. Wolfishly he ate half a ham washed down with endless tankards of beer, then lit his pipe. He laughed heartily and joked with the doctor. “If you’ve come for a friendly visit, I like it,” he said. “But I won’t have any of your poking over my carcass. There’s nothing the matter with me.”

Since London would have none of him, Handel took the Messiah to Ireland. The Lord Lieutenant had sent him a cordial invitation to come there. He would not accept a shilling for this work; the proceeds of its performance must go to charity. It was a miracle that had lifted him from deepest despondency; now let it be the hope of the world. In Dublin he merged two choirs and rehearsed the work. Excitement mounted as the date of the first performance neared. All the tickets were quickly sold, and to make more room ladies were requested to come without hoops, gentlemen without swords. On April 13, 1742, crowds waited at the doors hours before the opening. The response of that first audience was tumultuous.

After that triumph London was anxious to hear the work. And during the first performance a dramatic incident occurred. At the “Hallelujah Chorus” the crowd, following the king’s example, surged to its feet and remained standing until the conclusion—a practice that has persisted to this day.

While Handel lived he presented the Messiah yearly, the proceeds going to the Foundling Hospital. In his will he gave the royalties from this work to the same charity. Handel later was beset with many difficulties, but he never again succumbed to despair. Age sapped his vitality. He went blind. But his undaunted spirit remained to the last.

On the evening of April 6, 1759—Handel was 74—he was present at a performance of the Messiah. At the beginning of “The trumpet shall sound,” he felt faint and nearly fell. Those nearby steadied him. Friends helped him home and to bed. A few days later he said: “I should like to die on Good Friday.” And on Good Friday, true to his wish, the soul of George Frederick Handel departed his body. But his spirit goes marching on in the Messiah, the triumph of hope over despair. Its performance in London’s Royal Albert Hall on Good Friday is today a traditional part of the celebration of Easter.

In Messiah, Handel wrote an oratorio to light the dark places of the earth as long as there are voices to lift in song, eyes to look to the hills, hearts to hope.

Watch a Full Performance of Messiah

Below are PDFs of the text and music to Messiah available to download. I recommend that you print one out and read along as you listen.

Messiah text and music

Messiah text only

Listen to Handel’s Messiah HWV 56

Performed by the Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Stephen Cleobury with the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Timing and Sections: Listed below the video

Part I

Isaiah’s prophecy of salvation, The coming judgment, The prophecy of Christ’s birth, The annunciation to the shepherds, Christ’s healing and redemption

  • 0:00:00 Sinfony
  • 0:03:52 Air: Comfort ye, My people (Isaiah 40:1-3)
  • 0:06:47 Air: Ev’ry Valley shall be exalted (Isaiah 40:4)
  • 0:10:08 Chorus: And the glory of the Lord (Isaiah 40:5)
  • 0:14:29 Air: But who may abide (Malachi 3:2)
  • 0:19:00 Chorus: And He shall purify the sons of Levi (Malachi 3:3)
  • 0:22:06 Air: O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion (Isaiah 40:9)
  • 0:33:13 Chorus: 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, Counsellor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)
  • 0:37:20 Pifa (Pastoral Symphony)
  • 0:41:41 Chorus: Glory to God (Luke 2:14)
  • 0:43:40 Air: Rejoice greatly, o daughter of Zion (Zecharaiah 9:9-10)
  • 0:48:44 Air: He shall feed his flock (Isaiah 40:11)
  • 0:54:00 Chorus: His yoke is easy (Matthew 11:30)

Part II

Christ’s Passion, Christ’s Death and Resurrection, Christ’s Ascension, The beginnings of Gospel preaching, The world’s rejection of the Gospel, God’s ultimate victory

  • 0:56:40 Chorus: Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world. (John 1:29)
  • 0:59:23 Air: He was despised (Isaiah 53:3)
  • 1:11:05 Chorus: Surely he hath borne…Chorus: And with his (Isaiah 53:4-5)
  • 1:14:41 Chorus: All we like sheep have gone astray (Isaiah 53:6)
  • 1:19:10 Chorus: He trusted in God (Psalm 22:8)
  • 1:25:22 Air: But thou didst not leave his soul in hell (Psalm 16:10)
  • 1:27:20 Chorus: Lift up your heads (Psalm 24:7-10)
  • 1:32:52 Chorus: Let all the angels of God worship Him (Hebrews 1:6)
  • 1:34:24 Air: Thou art gone up on High (Psalm 68:18)
  • 1:37:33 Chorus: The Lord gave the word; great was the company of the preachers. (Psalm 68:11)
  • 1:38:40 Air: How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things (Isaiah 52:7; Romans 10:15)
  • 1:41:05 Chorus: Their sound is gone out (Romans 10: 18; Psalm 19:4)
  • 1:42:38 Air: Why do the nations…Let us break their bonds asunder (Psalm 2:1-2)
  • 1:47:30 Air: Thou shalt break them (Psalm 2:9)
  • 1:49:34 Chorus: Hallelujah: for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth (Revelation 19:6)

Part III

The promise of eternal life, The Day of Judgment, The final conquest of sin, The acclamation of the Messiah

  • 1:53:43 Air: I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God (Job 19:25-26)
  • 1:59:48 Chorus: Since by man came death (I Corinthians 15:21-22)
  • 2:01:50 Recitative: Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet (I Corinthians 15:51-52)
  • 2:02:27 Air: The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption and this mortal must put on immortality.(I Corinthians 15:52-53)
  • 2:11:40 Duet: O Death (I Corinthians 15:55-56)
  • 2:16:00 Air: If God be for us (Romans 8:31)
  • 2:21:20 Chorus: Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever. (Revelation 5:12-14)
  • 2:24:48 Amen.