Getting to Know Handel's Messiah

December 19, 2019 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments

Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement

Every Advent, I make it a point to listen to the entirety of Handel’s Messiah at least two or three times. I was a student at Moody Bible Institute the first time I sat through the performance of this oratorio. I was astounded by it then and my appreciation has only grown since. Consider some facts which surround the composition of Messiah

  • George Frederick Handel was extremely impoverished and nearly bankrupt when he wrote the score in 1741. The German born composer (1685) can to London when he was 27 (1712) and initially grew in fame and wealth writing Italian operas. These fell out of style by the late 1730s and Handel struggled.
  • Charles Jennens was a good friend of Handel’s and a benefactor for his music. Jennens was born into a wealthy, land-owning family. It is Jennens who arranged the libretto for the Messiah (the text, using primarily Scripture). He passed this along to Handel, requesting the musical score.
  • Jennens arranged the text for Messiah as a response to the growth of deism. He wanted people to hear a beautiful depiction of the deity and redemption of Christ.
  • In the summer of 1741 Handel composed the 260 pages of music for Messiah in 24 days. When he finished writing what would become known as the Hallelujah Chorus, he said, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.”
  • Messiah was first performed in April 1742 in Dublin and then brought to London a year later. Before his death in 1759, Handel conducted 30 performances of the oratorio, but never at Christmastime. Handel believed the piece was for the season of Lent leading up to Easter.
  • Initially, the church opposed the Messiah, saying that such sacred texts should not be uttered on the lips of secular performers in public theaters.
  • It is rumored that when King George II first heard the Messiah that he arose to his feet during the Hallelujah Chorus out of reverence. Some historians dispute this rumor, but the tradition continues to this day.
  • His friend Sir John Hawkins commented, “Throughout his life, [Handel] manifested a deep sense of religion. In conversation he would frequently declare the pleasure he felt in setting the Scriptures to music, and how contemplating the many sublime passages in the Psalms had contributed to his edification.” [1] 

I take away a couple of observations: First, while Handel was extremely gifted as a composer, he was an ordinary person. He struggled with emotions. He barely avoided debtor’s prison. He needed to be edified by Scripture just like you and me. His hope for the future rested in Christ. You and I are like Handel and can follow in his footsteps by looking to Jesus for hope. 

Second, Jennens, the far-lesser-known benefactor behind Messiah, never could have imagined the impact this oratorio would have. He wanted to confront a current day issue. God used his vision and encouragement of Handel to touch millions, if not billions, of people for nearly three centuries. We can never be aware of how God will use our efforts to make known the astonishing grace of Christ. We are called to be faithful and bold for the sake of the gospel.

[1] The primary source for the quotes and information is


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