George Frederic Handel’s Messiah (1741) is probably the composer’s most famous work; indeed, as music scholar Donald Burrows has noted, it’s the only composition of its time that has been performed continuously, and with remarkable frequency, since its premiere in Dublin on April 12, 1742. Along with its significant performance history, the enduring popularity of Messiah owes much to the unique qualities of its text and the ways in which it was set to music.
Messiah is an oratorio, a genre which can be broadly defined as an opera on a religious topic. However, while an oratorio may have a narrative plot containing characters and operatic elements such as recitatives, arias, and choruses, it’s intended to be performed in concert form—that is, without scenery, costumes, and acting (though action would be implied). Messiah is, notably, a certain kind of concert oratorio that Handel himself had developed in England, for performance in the opera theatre, during the Lenten season when opera could not be performed. Handel introduced Messiah to London theatres beginning in 1743, and in subsequent revivals, he always scheduled its performance at the end of the theatre season, and within a couple of weeks before Easter. Today, Messiah is usually performed around Christmas, a recurring highlight of concert hall seasons.
Messiah tells the story of God’s redemption of mankind through Christ the Saviour. Charles Jennens, a friend of the composer’s, created the libretto by selecting and adapting verses from the Old and New Testaments in the Authorized Version of the Bible. The verses are grouped so the drama unfolds over three main parts: Part One presents the prophecies about the Messiah’s coming, and their fulfillment in his birth; Part Two follows the passion story of Christ, his crucifixion, death, and resurrection, the rejection of Christ, and God’s ultimate victory; Part Three is a meditation on what is accomplished through Christ’s victory—the promise of eternal life and triumph over death. While the story has clear religious significance, Jennens avoids a dogmatic interpretation. As a result, Messiah’s narrative, rich in complex human themes and emotions, can be appreciated by anyone, regardless of belief or creed.
The presentation of Messiah’s story, not by the personification of individual characters but in a descriptive format through the voices of the four soloists and chorus, makes this work unique to the oratorio genre. This aspect, in turn, shaped how Handel set Jennens’s libretto to music. By using a flexible approach to the then-standard forms and aspects of recitative, aria, and chorus, the composer deftly infuses variety and drama to the telling of the text. Listen to how recitative accompanied by the orchestra’s strings (compared to recitative accompanied only by continuo, i.e., keyboard and cello) drives the narrative forward in key moments such as “And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them” (Part One), “Thy rebuke hath broken His heart” (Part Two), and “Behold, I tell you a mystery” (Part Three). By contrast, the airs (or arias) offer opportunities to contemplate more deeply the diverse moods and emotions expressed, while the choruses are moments to revel in the shifting musical textures—from layered counterpoint to majestic chordal declarations—that enliven these commentaries.
Program notes by Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley
Sinfony: Grave – Allegro moderato
Accompagnato (Tenor): Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
Air (Tenor): Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, ev’ry mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.
Chorus: And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.
Accompagnato (Bass): Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of Hosts: yet once, a little while, and I will shake the heav’ns, and the earth, the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come: the Lord whom you seek, shall suddenly come to His temple, ev’n the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold He shall come, the Lord of hosts.
Air (Alto): But who may abide the day of His coming? And who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner’s fire.
Chorus: And He shall purify the sons of Levi that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.
Recitative (Alto): Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Emmanuel: “God with us.”
Air (Alto) and Chorus: O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain; O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, “Behold your God: Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.”
Accompagnato (Bass): For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee, and the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and the kings to the brightness of thy rising.
Air (Bass): The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.
Chorus: For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
Pifa: Pastoral Symphony
Recitative (Soprano): There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.
Accompagnato (Soprano): And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.
Recitative (Soprano): And the angel said unto them: Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
Accompagnato (Soprano): And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying,
Chorus: Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth, good will toward men.
Air (Soprano): Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold, thy King cometh unto thee: He is the righteous Saviour, and He shall speak peace unto the heathen.
Recitative (Alto): Then shall the eyes of the blind be open’d, and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.
Air (Alto and Soprano): He shall feed His flock like a shepherd, and He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. Come unto Him, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and He will give you rest. Take His yoke upon you, and learn of Him, for He is meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
Chorus: His yoke is easy, and His burthen is light.
Chorus: Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.
Air (Alto): He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting.
Chorus: Surely, He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows. He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon Him.
Chorus: And with His stripes we are healed.
Chorus: All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way, and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
Accompagnato (Tenor): All they that see Him, laugh Him to scorn; they shoot out their lips, and shake their heads, saying:
Chorus: He trusted in God that He would deliver Him: let Him deliver Him, if He delight in Him.
Accompagnato (Tenor): Thy rebuke hath broken His heart; He is full of heaviness; He looked for some to have pity on Him, but there was no man, neither found He any to comfort Him.
Arioso (Tenor): Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto His sorrow.
Accompagnato (Tenor): He was cut off out of the land of the living; for the transgression of Thy people was He stricken.
Air (Tenor): But Thou didst not leave His soul in Hell, nor didst Thou suffer Thy Holy One to see corruption.
Chorus: Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in. Who is this King of Glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in. Who is this King of Glory? The Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Glory
Air (Soprano): How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace and bring glad tidings of good things.
Air (Bass): Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord, and against His anointed, saying:
Chorus: Let us break their bonds asunder and cast away their yokes from us.
Recitative (Tenor): He that dwelleth in Heaven shall laugh them to scorn: The Lord shall have them in derision.
Air (Tenor): Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.
Chorus: Hallelujah for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. The kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He shall reign for ever and ever. King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, Hallelujah!
Air (Soprano): I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first-fruits of them that sleep.
Chorus: Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
Accompagnato (Bass): Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.
Air (Bass): The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
Recitative (Alto): Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
Duet (Alto and Tenor): 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.
Chorus: But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Chorus: Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. Blessing and honour, glory and pow’r, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever
— Text from the King James version of the Bible, selected and arranged by Charles Jennens. Carus Edition, Ton Koopman & Jan H. Siemons, editors.
Yosuke Kawasaki (concertmaster)
Jessica Linnebach (associate concertmaster)
Noémi Racine Gaudreault (assistant concertmaster)
Mintje van Lier (principal)
Winston Webber (assistant principal)
Jethro Marks (principal)
David Marks (associate principal)
David Goldblatt (assistant principal)**
Rachel Mercer (principal)
Julia MacLaine (assistant principal)
Hilda Cowie (acting assistant principal)
Joanna G'froerer (principal)
Charles Hamann (principal)
Kimball Sykes (principal)
Christopher Millard (principal)
Lawrence Vine (principal)
Julie Fauteux (associate principal)
Karen Donnelly (principal)
Steven van Gulik
Donald Renshaw (principal)
Chris Lee (principal)
Feza Zweifel (principal)**
Non-titled members of the Orchestra are listed alphabetically
Kristen de Marchi
Heather Lynn Smith
Marcel de Hêtre