The triumph of Handel's Messiah | WORLD
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Handel’s triumph

A Christmas classic written for Easter cemented an 18th-century composer’s legacy

Illustration by Rachel Beatty

Handel’s triumph
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Ginger Wyrick raps her baton on a music stand. The sound of discordant small talk and squeaking wooden chairs dies out, leaving the cavernous sanctuary silent. It’s so quiet inside Charlotte’s First United Methodist Church that the sounds of construction and traffic seep into the century-old building.

In front of Wyrick, underneath a towering set of organ pipes, sit 50 choir members.

Each holds a copy of the best-known classical piece of the Christmas season. A gray-haired man squints at his score through a pair of glasses, while a teenager behind him peers out through a mop of curly hair. The rows of multigenerational singers focus expectantly on the conductor.

Wyrick is a professor of music at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Each year in December, she volunteers to conduct the Charlotte Music Club’s performance of Handel’s Messiah. It’s a challenge she’s relished since 2010.

Members of Our Lady’s Choral Society at Fishamble Street in Dublin perform Handel’s Messiah.

Members of Our Lady’s Choral Society at Fishamble Street in Dublin perform Handel’s Messiah. Brendan Donnelly/Alamy

Some of this year’s singers are veterans of previous performances. Others are singing the notes for the first time. At least half missed their cue into the previous song and are now scribbling furiously on their sheet music.

“We’re shaking off the cobwebs … that’s OK,” Wyrick assures the group.

She gestures behind her to the vast, empty sanctuary with its stone pillars, tall arched ceilings, and stained glass windows.

“Allow the architecture to join with us,” she urges the singers.

Then she nods to the accompanying pianist. After a few lilting measures, a group of altos begins to sing.

“And the glory, the glory of the Lord.”

Illustration by Rachel Beatty

Reverent refrains like this are masterfully woven throughout George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. Those lyrics, today, have become a staple of Christmas music. Each December Messiah returns to churches and concert halls around the world like The Nutcracker returns to ballet stages.

But Handel didn’t write the piece for Christmas. Its debut in 1742 coincided with Easter.

Handel’s Messiah performed on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles, 1970

Handel’s Messiah performed on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles, 1970 Harold Filan/AP

HANDEL’S 18th-century fame waxed and waned, and before writing Messiah, he was scraping the bottom of the creative barrel. Opera, Handel’s bread and butter, had taken a nosedive in popularity. As his bank account dwindled, Handel refused to answer knocks at his door for fear he’d be hauled off to a debtors’ prison.

His friend Charles Jennens had no such concerns. Jennens was a renowned librettist—someone who writes the text portion of long vocal works like operas. In 1742, Jennens sent a newly written libretto to his struggling and impoverished friend. It was made up of passages from the Old and New Testaments.

Inspiration struck, and Handel barricaded himself in his room while he wrote furiously. It only took him 24 days to set Jennens’ words to music in a three-part oratorio. He called it Messiah.

Handel had an advantage over many Baroque composers. Since he had previously written operas, he knew how to compose a catchy melody. Unlike fugues and minuets, operas have identifiable tunes. They are easy to hum along to. As Handel pored over Jennens’ libretto, these hummable melodies flowed from his pen.

The Trinity Choir with the Trinity Baroque Orchestra performs Messiah.

The Trinity Choir with the Trinity Baroque Orchestra performs Messiah. Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

Oratorios are like operas but shorter and without sets or costumes. Operas were considered “highbrow music” during the Baroque era and were usually ­performed in German, French, or Italian. Oratorios were written for the middle class and performed in the audience’s language.

Handel took Messiah to Dublin, Ireland, for its debut at the New Music Hall on April 13, 1742. The following year, the piece premiered in London, with King George II in attendance.

During the “Hallelujah” chorus, the monarch rose to his feet. According to royal protocol, the rest of the audience followed suit. Some claim he stood in awe. Others venture he likely needed a good stretch after sitting for two hours. No matter the royal motive, the king began a tradition that continues during Messiah performances today.

Even if the king wasn’t expressing his amazement, many over the last few centuries have.

Tim Slover wrote the play Joyful Noise, an account of Handel’s journey to writing Messiah. Slover calls it the best-known piece of classical music in the Western canon, which is why many communities today host not only performances but Messiah singalongs.

“It was an oratorio given to the people,” Slover said.

Calligraphy by Lauren Lloyd

DURING this year’s first Messiah rehearsal in Charlotte, Ginger Wyrick commands the stage like a high school football coach at halftime. If a member jumps the rhythm, her baton raps the music stand, bringing the choir to a halt. Details matter. Cutting words short means you “aren’t honoring the note,” she barks.

The choir only has five rehearsals before its performance on Dec. 10. And this piece, she reminds the singers, is worthy of an excellent performance.

“When we sing those words, they are transformative,” she pleads. “They don’t just tell a story. They tell a relationship, the love of God and the love of Jesus Christ, in mercy, that has been shown to His people.”

The entire oratorio is 2½ hours long and features three scenes or themes: the Nativity, Christ’s life and suffering, and His resurrection and judgment.

The most identifiable movement of the entire piece—the “Hallelujah” chorus—brings Scene 2 to a close.

The Charlotte Music Club performs only part of the entire Messiah, with song selections related to the Christmas season. In addition to the famous “Hallelujah” chorus, they sing Movement 12, better known as “For Unto Us a Child Is Born.”

In this buoyant chorus, the melody seems to float between choral parts as each group takes turns carrying the tune.

This year’s performance is the club’s sole opportunity to raise funds for music student scholarships. Many other musical groups use the popular holiday performances as fundraisers for various causes. That tie to philanthropy harks back to Messiah’s inception.

The debut in Dublin raised funds for a debtors’ prison and two hospitals.

George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel Getty Images

Nearly a decade later, Handel kept the piece alive by performing it at the Foundling Hospital in London as part of an annual benefit concert. He even gifted the musical score to the hospital, ensuring the benefit performances that began in 1749 would continue after his death in 1759. The hospital continued to host them into the 1770s.

Messiah formally entered the Christmas canon when the Caecilian Society of London introduced December performances in 1791. A third of Messiah narrates the prophecy and birth of Christ, making it a fit for Advent as much as Lent.

American musicians soon took note of the seasonal relevance.

In 1818, Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society gave the first full American performance of Messiah on Christmas Day. Since 1854, the organization has hosted the annual Christmas favorite without skipping a beat. Even during World War II, the society performed a scaled-down version.

Nearly three centuries after its debut, Messiah has been resized to suit venues, audiences, and demand. Handel’s first performance included 60 members. Over a century later, London’s Crystal Palace organized a concert that included 4,500 total cast members.

As of 2019, Messiah has been performed 524 times at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

Page detail from “Hallelujah” chorus.

Page detail from “Hallelujah” chorus. British Library/Alamy

AFTER his death, prominent composers took turns tipping their cap to Handel.

Beethoven called him “the greatest composer who ever lived.” Mozart aimed at reorchestrating Handel’s Messiah after the composer’s death. With that attempt came high praise for Handel. “When he chooses,” Mozart reportedly said, “he strikes like a thunderbolt.”

Ace Collins, author of multiple books on Christmas songs and traditions, fondly compares Handel’s fame to that of Elvis.

“He wasn’t writing classical music,” Collins said of the 18th-century composer. “He was writing the pop hits of his time. Just a different style than we had.”

But Collins believes the seasonal swap from Easter to Christmas gets credit for Messiah’s continued prominence: “Christmas music is unique in the fact that it’s a time machine.”

Decades after their lifetimes, performers like Burl Ives, Perry Como, and the Carpenters all return to the airwaves and personal playlists each December. Their contemporaries who didn’t have a Christmas hit faded into musical history.

“Christmas hits make you immortal,” Collins said. “I mean, when was the last time you heard a Bing Crosby song other than a Christmas song?”

Immortality was certainly on Handel’s mind when he composed Messiah, but not the pop culture variety.

Near the oratorio’s conclusion, alto and tenor soloists exchange the following words:

“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.”

Ginger Wyrick describes the first time she heard Messiah on national broadcast with one word: joy.

“Singing these words each year, we as believers remind ourselves and center ourselves on who we are, and the promises of God fulfilled, and the promises that are yet to be fulfilled,” she said. “It’s just transformative.”

The First United Methodist Church in Charlotte has hosted a Christmas Messiah performance for the last 20 years. Wyrick has conducted most of them, and each year brings the same amount of anticipation.

A rich text calls for rich musical accompaniment. And according to Wyrick, that’s what makes Handel’s work so remarkable.

“Handel understood the theology that he was writing,” she said. “There are places where things are repeated three times. That’s Trinitarian. And so he understands the theology. It’s not just well-crafted counterpoint. It is well-crafted theology.”

Caleb Bailey

Caleb is a WORLD Radio correspondent and WORLD Watch feature reporter based in Asheville, N.C. He graduated from both California State University Channel Islands and the World Journalism Institute in 2021.


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