In my last blog post, I answered the question, "Why are so many musical terms are in Italian?" I pointed out that, since the time of the Renaissance, Italy was the cultural and artistic center of Europe, and thus became the place where many musicians from other countries went to develop their craft.
One of these musicians was George Frederick Handel, who grew up in northern Germany. After a period of studying in Italy, he moved to England, where he had a successful career composing Italian operas. But when that genre lost popularity in England, Handel had to adapt.
His solution was to develop a form called oratorio, which is somewhat like opera, but without costumes and scenery. There is an orchestra, a chorus, and soloists, and the music is sung in the vernacular. And since the English audiences preferred stories written around themes of a higher moral quality than those found in a typical Italian production, Handel wrote his oratorios based on sacred themes.
And so it was that in 1741, Charles Jennens brought to Handel a libretto drawn from the many Biblical texts prophesying the birth and life of Christ. Handel wrote the music in fewer than four weeks, during which time he said famously, "I thought I saw all heaven open before me and the great God Himself."
The first performance took place on April 13, 1742, in Dublin, Ireland. Proceeds from the concert were given to local charities; indeed, during his lifetime, Handel conducted dozens of performances of Messiah, most of which were given as benefit concerts.
The oratorio continues to move audiences in our generation, and is a lasting witness to the greatness of the Bible and the One to whom all scripture points. I encourage you to attend or participate in a Messiah performance whenever you have the opportunity!
For further study, I recommend Dr. N. A. Woychuk's excellent book,
Messiah: A New Look at the Composer, the Music, and the Message, published by Scripture Memory Fellowship. For a list of all the scriptures quoted in Messiah, visit this link.