You’ve probably heard of “Handel’s Messiah,” especially the “Hallelujah” chorus, but where did it come from? We chatted with our Resident Conductor Adam Johnson to get the scoop. Hear it live at our Handel’s Messiah (Dec. 6 & 7) and Sing-Along Messiah (Dec. 8) concerts.
Q. So what is Handel’s Messiah?
A. Handel’s Messiah was written in 1741 and tells the story of the life of the Messiah through music and singing. It begins with the prophet’s foretelling his coming, and then goes into Christ’s nativity, his passion, his resurrection, and his ascension into heaven.
Q. Handel’s Messiah is described as an “oratorio.” What does that mean?
A. An Oratorio is like an opera, in that there are singers, there’s a choir, there are words that are sung, and it is in three big sections similar to the acts of an opera. But it is different from opera in that it is not staged, and there isn’t necessarily a linear story. There aren’t characters who interact in dialogue with each other, but rather it is a collection of different texts all on one subject.
Handel had already written a lot of Italian opera when it was in vogue, but the public taste was changing, and in London at the time it was going more towards oratorios in the English language.
Q. What is the “Hallelujah” Chorus?
A. The Hallelujah Chorus is the last number at the end of the second section, glorifying God. There is also a crowd pleasing element because it is at the end of an act, and it was clearly written to generate applause. He wants it to be very energetic and glorious.
Q. Why are there lots of versions of Handel’s Messiah?
A. The Messiah itself was composed very bare bones as all composers did at the time. Handel did not write out a part for every instrument. He would just write certain lines and then it was given to the copyists who were writing out the parts – they just knew that there were certain standards. He would change what he wrote depending on how many musicians were available, so every city or venue heard a different version depending on budgets and who could play or sing.
So there are a lot of versions that exist of The Messiah.
Q. Were there certain trends in how The Messiah was performed?
A. In the Romantic period, in the 1800’s, larger forces became popular. So there were performances that had more than 2000 singers and more than 500 musicians.
Eventually, the effect of that wore off, and people wanted to get back to what the Messiah originally sounded like – going back to Baroque sized forces, which is a reduced orchestra, smaller ensembles and smaller choirs.
Q. What makes Handel’s Messiah a great piece of music?
A. Many things; besides the beautiful melodies, there is a huge scope of emotion in it because it covers the life of the Messiah. There are sections that are much darker, and there are sections that are very jubilant.
And it’s powerful. There’s a reason why the Hallelujah chorus is so famous – it’s such uplifting music.