Nowadays, the performance of George Friedrich Handel’s Messiah oratorio at Christmas time is a tradition almost as deeply entrenched as decorating trees and hanging stockings. In churches and concert halls around the world, the most famous piece of sacred music in the English language is performed both full and abridged, both with and without audience participation, but almost always and exclusively during the weeks leading up to the celebration of Christmas. It would surprise many, then, to learn that Messiah was not originally intended as a piece of Christmas music. Messiah received its world premiere on this day in 1742, during the Christian season of Lent, and in the decidedly secular context of a concert hall in Dublin, Ireland.
The inspiration for Messiah came from a scholar and editor named Charles Jennens, a devout and evangelical Christian deeply concerned with the rising influence of deism and other strains of Enlightenment thought that he and others regarded as irreligious. Drawing on source material in the King James Bible and The Book of Common Prayer, Jennens compiled and edited a concise distillation of Christian doctrine, from Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah’s coming through the birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ and then to the promised Second Coming and Day of Judgment. Jennens took his libretto to his friend George Friedrich Handel and proposed that it form the basis of an oratorio expressly intended for performance in a secular setting during the week immediately preceding Easter. “Messiah would be directed at people who had come to a theater rather than a church during Passion Week,” according to the Cambridge Handel scholar Ruth Smith, “to remind them of their supposed faith and their possible fate.”
This didactic mission may have inspired Jennens to write Messiah, but it is fair to say that George Friedrich Handel’s transcendent music is what made the work so timeless and inspirational. Messiah gained widespread popularity only during the final years of Handel’s life, in the late 1750s, but it remains one of the best-known musical works of the Baroque period more than two centuries later. When you consider that Handel composed the score for Messiah in just 24 days, you begin to understand the incredible esteem in which some of his followers held him. As Ludwig van Beethoven said of Handel: “He is the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb.”