And is it true? And is it true, this most tremendous tale of all?
A baby in an ox’s stall?
The maker of the stars and sea, become a child, on Earth, for me?

Sir John Betjeman

O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be?
For neither before Thee was any like unto Thee, nor shall there be any after.
Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me?
The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.

Antiphon for Christmas Eve


Messiah is a biblical oratorio by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) for SATB soloists, SATB chorus, orchestra and continuo. It was written during a three-week period in August/September 1741, and given its first performance in Dublin, on April 13th 1742 at the New Music Hall in Fishamble Street. The first London performance was a year later in Covent Garden at Easter in 1743. Originally intended as an Easter offering, Messiah these days is as bound up with Christmas as tinsel and mince pies. It is one of only two oratorios by Handel where the entire text is taken from the bible, the other being Israel in Egypt, written in 1739. The text was assembled by Handel’s trusted friend and librettist, Charles Jennens (1700-1773). Messiah is a unique oratorio – neither historical fact, nor dramatic tale, nor chronological narrative, nor philosophical presentation. It is a meditation, using Holy Scripture and pointing to, and detailing the purpose of, the anointed one, the expected one, the promised royal and spiritual leader of the Jewish people. It presents us with an insight into key Christian beliefs. It focuses on the contrasts between darkness and light, metaphorically aligned with the frailty of man and the power of God. What Messiah does not set out to do is to tell the story of Christ’s mortal life on earth. There is scant mention of the miracles attributed to Christ in the gospels, no spectacular healing, no feeding of five thousand people, or the turning of water into wine, no reference to the weighty parables of his teaching, and no detailing of his interaction with other mortals. Also missing from Messiah, often found in other oratorios, are the confrontations between characters who form part of the tale.

Christopher Hogwood, founder of the specialist Baroque ensemble, The Academy of Ancient Music, states:

“Messiah is not a typical Handel oratorio: there are no named characters, as are usually found in Handel’s settings of Old Testament stories, possibly to avoid charges of blasphemy. It is a meditation rather than a drama of personalities, lyrical in method.

There is no dialogue – the story is carried along by implication rather than by action.”

Unlike many of Handel’s oratorios, where the action is driven by recitative and elaborate arias from the soloists, Messiah is very much a piece where the chorus takes pole position, propelling the story forwards with dramatic impact and uplifting messages. Seventeen of the nineteen choruses begin with either a single vocal part declaiming the text, or a strong homophonic statement of it. This is to ensure that the text is clearly delivered – Handel would not have known in advance how good his Dublin chorus was going to be and this is a sure-fire way to get the text across. (As a composer of Italian opera, opportunities to write dramatically for a chorus were somewhat limited – in his oratorios, Handel wastes no time in exploiting this feature of the genre.)

Structurally the work is divided into three parts, which follow the liturgical sequence of the Christian year, beginning with Advent and Christmas, moving into Lent, Easter, Ascensiontide and Pentecost, and concluding with the end of the year, and the end of time. Or, put more simply, the Nativity, the Passion and the Redemption with its promise of eternal life. The text for the birth and death of Christ are not drawn exclusively from the gospels, as one might logically expect, but largely from the Old Testament words of the Prophet Isaiah – the passion, resurrection and ascension are told exclusively in the words of prophecy rather than gospel. The entire text is very carefully extracted from a total of seven books of the Old Testament (including the Book of Psalms in the translation by Miles Coverdale, as found in the Book of Common Prayer of 1549) and, from the New Testament, the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John, the Pauline Epistles to the Romans, the Corinthians and the spurious one to the Hebrews, and the Book of Revelation, all from the authorised King James translation of 1611. The passages of text which Jennens chose would have been very familiar to the eighteenth century audiences through their regular, daily worship with the Book of Common Prayer. In selecting his text, Jennens flits restlessly about his sources, somewhat erratically, taking both whole verses and extracts from verses, and sometimes combining a sentence, or even part of a sentence, from the Old Testament with one from the New. He does not shirk from taking the end of one sentence and combining it with the beginning of a sentence from another book in the bible altogether, or missing out a whole clause in a verse, cherry-picking just the words he wishes. He also takes liberties with the translation, often changing the first person for third person in order to turn a personal account from an Old Testament text into a narrative which can be applied to Christ’s mortal experiences as detailed in the gospels. He often omits the word ‘for’ from the start of a verse to make the text more direct and assertive. For example, ‘For I know that my redeemer liveth’ becomes ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’. On one occasion he even turns a question into a statement by removing a key word, and on another occasion changes the tense from present to past. The only biblical ‘scene’ represented in the work, according to its literal biblical description, is the annunciation to the shepherds on Christmas Eve, the words for which are drawn directly from the Gospel of St Luke. There is no direct speech in the libretto, only the reported speech of God and an angel. The metaphorical imagery of the shepherd and the lamb run throughout much of the work, like a recurring thread. The aria He shall Feed His Flock is the only part of the work where the text speaks directly about Christ and his mortal life on earth. The choice of texts can be seen as a fulfilment of the seventh of the thirty-nine articles of religion, as found in the Book of Common Prayer, which connects the Old and New Testaments through prophecy, and promises everlasting life through the mediation of Christ.

Aberdeen Bach Choir
Scottish Registered Charity Number SC008609

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