People and Genres

28 Handel’s Messiah

In the previous chapter you were introduced to the life and music of G. F. Handel and the way he and others have drawn on the Bible to provide entertainment. In this chapter you will
  • explore Handel’s most famous work, The Messiah, in detail
  • learn why Handel’s most famous oratorio is not in fact an oratorio
  • compare the most famous part of The Messiah with another work by Handel that you may remember from television
  • learn about the impact of The Messiah on one of the performers and some of Handel’s contemporaries

Handel’s Magnum Opus: The Messiah

For many people, if they know the musical term oratorio, it is because of George Frideric Handel’s most famous work, The Messiah. Ironically, however, while Handel composed a great many works that fall into the category of “biblical oratorio,” The Messiah is not one of them, technically speaking. If an oratorio may be defined as an opera without the costumes and acting, The Messiah does not have characters in the way operas and oratorios normally would. Listen to the entire thing if you did not do so in the previous chapter.[1]

The words of the libretto by Charles Jennens are all taken from biblical texts. They are not always taken directly from the King James Version (KJV) or the Book of Common Prayer (although most of them are). Jennens seems to have drawn on Henry Hammond’s paraphrase and annotations on the books of the Bible,[2] which included criticism of the KJV.

As we said, Messiah is not, strictly speaking, an oratorio as typically defined in that era, since there is no drama. Oratorio meant something that was much the same as opera, without the acting but with different individuals nonetheless voicing different roles. Some appreciated the difference in the case of Messiah. Dr. Edward Synge, bishop of Elphin, commented that the lack of dialogue was a plus.[3]

The text on its own may not, at first glance, seem like the sort of thing that might inspire music, much less memorable, great music. Read it on its own and you will see what I mean. Any biblical text can be set to music, of course, and there are a great many different instances of texts being brought together and set to music. Is there anything special about this particular group of texts, combined in this particular way, that might account for the work’s popularity?

A textual study of the libretto by Martin Dicke notes, “His primary source was the King James Version of the Bible. For all but one of the Psalm texts, however, he used the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Altogether, the libretto is taken from 81 Bible verses that come from 14 different books of the Bible. Of these books, Isaiah is quoted the most frequently (21 verses) followed by the Book of Psalms (15 verses) and 1 Corinthians (10 verses). It is interesting and significant to note that all of the passages from 1 Corinthians come from 1 Corinthians 15.”[4] For those not familiar with it, chapter 15 of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth focuses on resurrection—both the resurrection of Jesus and resurrection as the form of afterlife for all. Many of the texts incorporated into the libretto are well known among the biblically literate—they are not, for the most part, obscure.

Musically, hints of elements that are to come later are woven in very early. For instance, specific harmonic progressions and cadences in “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” will be fleshed out more fully in the “Hallelujah” chorus. The latter is about the revelation of the glory of the Lord in its fullest eschatological (end of time/history) sense, as the kingdoms of the world become the kingdom of God and his Christ forever more. If one listens to Handel’s coronation anthem “Zadok the Priest,” composed for the 1727 coronation of King George II of England, one hears similarities with the famous “Hallelujah Chorus.” That work is a setting of a biblical text and may be known to some today from its appearance in the television show The Crown in the scene of Elizabeth’s coronation. It is interesting to think about whether the musical and lyrical similarity between the two works suggests that the famous “Hallelujah Chorus” ought to be thought of as a coronation anthem for Jesus.[5] The scene from Revelation that is depicted (see Revelation 11:15)—and indeed, in a sense, the book as a whole—could be interpreted in that way. Listen from around 2:43 in this recording of the work, and see if the similarity strikes you in the same way.[6]

We see from these few examples, among many others that could be provided, that Handel was theologically as well as musically astute, as he would need to be in order to find in Jennens’s libretto not a mere catena of texts but a combination that has profound depth and significance. And this helps us recognize the key elements in the reception of the Bible in Messiah. The biblical text is interpreted whenever one makes omissions or takes verses and passages from their original context and places them side by side.[7] Setting them to music then interprets them again. (And when cuts are made to Messiah, the meaning changes once more.) The combination of ancient Israelite prophecy, Gospel narrative, and New Testament prophecy that we encounter in Messiah creates new meanings and interpretations of the biblical text even apart from the music. A great example of the change of meaning when texts are removed from their original context and juxtaposed can be found in Part II of Messiah, “Lift Up Your Heads,” which sets Psalm 24 in the context of Jesus’s descent into hell and ascension into heaven so that the gates become those of hell or those of heaven, but in either case, they are no longer those of the earthly city of Jerusalem.

The music begins softly and builds from there—although the total ensemble is sparser than in other oratorios Handel wrote. The work includes musical “word painting” that anyone can appreciate—listen to the leaps on the word “exalted,” the jagged up and down on “crooked,” and so on.[8] Yet the music is also rich from the perspective of performers. Were this not so, the piece would not have become such a global phenomenon. Music that people enjoy listening to but no one relishes performing is not going to be performed and recorded as frequently as Messiah has been. And so one can analyze the work musically—noting, for instance, that in Part I of Messiah, the first of each group of three sections tends to be in a key that is subsequently revealed to be the dominant key of the next, musically depicting the sense of expectation that the words also convey.

Thus, while some take the easy route of attributing this masterpiece (as any other) to “inspiration,” it is a work that only someone with exceptional musical and theological ability could produce.[9] Handel made improvements to the music subsequent to the first performance (as well as other adjustments for performances in specific locations where the musicians and vocalists available differed).[10] Noting these points is not to remove the element of inspiration but to emphasize that great words, great music, and the greater combination of the two do not come to those who lack the training to channel the ideas. Moreover, the fact that great writers and composers did not simply have ideas come to them fully formed in a final and perfect version but created drafts that they subsequently revised and improved is crucial knowledge for would-be writers and composers in our time.

It is truly the interplay of the words and music that makes Messiah so powerful, so memorable, so meaningful, and so popular. The words on their own might or might not be deemed an interesting selection of biblical texts. The music on its own would undoubtedly be enjoyable if you like music from this era. When the two are combined, however, something emerges that is more than the sum of their parts. Try simply reading the libretto or listening to the music of Messiah without the words and you’ll see what I mean. This is not to suggest that the music on its own does not have merit, much less to suggest something of that sort about the lyrics! The point is that the combination becomes something greater—in this case, something much greater—than either is on its own.

Let me end this brief consideration of the interplay of words and music in Messiah by noting Jennens’s own reaction to the work, which Handel composed in only three weeks after receiving the libretto. In a January 1743 letter to Edward Holdsworth, Jennens wrote, “His Messiah has disappointed me, being set in great haste, tho’ he said he would be a year about it, & make it the best of all his compositions. I shall put no more sacred words into his hands to be thus abus’d.” Jennens’s impression of the piece improved once he heard it, but for years to follow, he would complain that the piece could have been better still had Handel made the improvements Jennens suggested to him.

Context of The Messiah

The historical context in which Messiah was composed was an era of increasing secularism, in which the use of sacred words for entertainment was controversial. David Greene writes, “It is a piece all of whose texts are drawn directly from the Bible, yet it is written for the concert hall, and uses a musical style that had been developed for the opera house, not the church.”[11] It would be too simple, however, to say only that Messiah exemplifies the outcome of a secularizing impulse. For it also shows another process at work, a process that is the reverse of secularization. It transforms the secular format and style, and they become the bearer of renewed and refreshed theological reflection. This process characterized Handel’s other oratorios, which—like seventeenth- and eighteenth-century oratorios in general—show the sacred attempting to reach into the profane and resanctify it, turning what had become profane into an aspect of the sacred. Indeed, the explicit strategy of those who commissioned the early Italian oratorios was to use a style that would reach out to people who were at risk of becoming indifferent to the life of the church and quicken their spirituality. Bach’s Passions are only works of art by accident, as it were, whereas Handel’s Messiah is art first and edification second. In an era that also witnessed the spread of Deism (the belief that God created the world to run according to natural laws so that divine interventions and miracles are unnecessary and do not occur), the question of how Messiah related to that is worth asking. Its outlook is orthodox, not Deistic—it emphasizes the activity of God in history and the person and work of Jesus in fairly traditional terms.

The first performance took place in Dublin as a benefit concert to raise money for two hospitals as well as prisoners in jails. Clergy objected to the work’s use of Scripture for entertainment purposes when the work was then performed in London. But interestingly enough, when it was offered for a benefit concert there, that marked a turning point in the work’s reception. And so it is important to reflect on the fact that just as words and music must be considered together, so too must both be in relation to their historical setting and their economic implications.

As is typical in Christian theology (in that time as often in our own), there is little focus on Jesus’s public activity and teaching, with just a hint of miracle (“Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened” [Isaiah 35:5]). Instead, Jesus’s fulfilment of prophecy, birth, suffering, and death takes center stage, with the most focus on his suffering and death.[12]

Reception of The Messiah

By One of Its Earliest Performers

The alto Susannah Cibber had been involved in a messy divorce for which she was widely criticized and, as a result, had moved from England to Dublin in Ireland in the early 1740s. Denis Stevens writes, “In the Dublin performance, it was reputedly Mrs. Cibber’s deeply emotional and theatrical performance of ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ that brought Rev. Dr. Patrick Delaney to his feet with ‘Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven!’ If she had redistributed the words, lessening the stress on ‘my’ and strengthening the key-word ‘Redeemer,’ Delaney might have said nothing at all. English may not have been Handel’s native language, but he knew how to set it with an assurance only bettered by Purcell.”[13] (Henry Purcell was one of Britain’s leading composers in the Baroque era.)

By Preachers

John Newton preached on the texts of Handel’s oratorio in the Parish Church of St. Mary Woolnoth in London from 1784 to 1785 (published in 1786). This was not because he was a fan. He said/wrote, “It is probable that those of my hearers who admire this oratorio, and are often present when it is performed, may think me harsh and singular in my opinion that of all our musical compositions this is the most improper for a public entertainment. But while it continues to be equally acceptable, whether performed in a church or in the theatre, and while the greater part of the performers and of the audience, are the same at both places, I can rate it no higher than as one of the many fashionable amusements which mark the character of this age of dissipation. I am afraid it is no better than a profanation of the name and truths of God, a crucifying the Son of God afresh. You may judge for yourselves.”[14]

Yet from our time, we can safely say that some people know these texts from the Bible solely as a result of Handel’s Messiah—and no one knows them today directly as a result of Newton’s preaching. On the initial objections to Handel’s depiction of this sacred oratorio in a secular setting, Ben Finane writes, “Messiah did not fare as well, owing to outcry over the singing of Scripture in the theatre rather than the church; this panicked Handel to the extant that, without changing its title, he advertised Messiah in vague terms as ‘A New Sacred Oratorio.’”[15] It will strike many today as odd that oratorios on sacred themes were not considered inappropriate, while actual use of Scripture was.

By Other Composers

There is a new setting of the same words by Sven-David Sandström, who, like Handel, is also not a native speaker of English. It is interesting to listen to this, if only because it shows that the combination of Jennens’s libretto with music does not automatically become what Handel’s Messiah has become. Here is an interview with the composer about the project.[16]

For Further Reading

Barrett, Wayne. “G. F. Handel’s ‘Messiah’: Drama Theologicus: A Discussion of ‘Messiah’s’ Text with Implications for Its Performance.” Choral Journal 46, no. 6 (2005): 8–14.

Bullard, Roger A. Messiah: The Gospel According to Handel’s Oratorio. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993.

Burrows, Donald. Handel, Messiah. Cambridge Music Handbooks. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Davies, Andrew. “Oratorio as Exegesis: The Use of the Book of Isaiah in Handel’s Messiah.” In Retellings—the Bible in Literature, Music, Art and Film, edited by J. Cheryl Exum, 464–84. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2007.

Greene, David B. “Handel’s ‘Messiah’: Music, Theology, and Ritual.” Soundings 75, no. 1 (1992): 43–59.

Reno, Timothy John. “A ‘Messiah’ for Our Time: An Analysis of Sven-David Sandström’s New Oratorio.” MA thesis, University of Maryland, 2010.

Roberts, John H. “False Messiah.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 63, no. 1 (2010): 45–97.


  1. Martin Pearlman conducts Boston Baroque. Licensed to YouTube by UMG.
  2. The full title is Deuterai phrontides, or, A review of the paraphrase & annotations on all the books of the New Testament with some additions & alterations.
  3. See Donald Burrows, Handel, Messiah (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 20.
  4. There are, in fact, seventeen quotations from the Psalms if one includes New Testament quotations from that book.
  5. Calvin R. Stapert, Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 135.
  6. Performed by the Academy of Ancient Music and the Choir of the Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Richard Egarr. Recorded live at Symphony Hall in Birmingham. Shared on YouTube by the Academy of Ancient Music.
  7. For example, you may know what Paul had in view when he wrote to the Philippians, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” but if you wear it on a T-shirt, you are probably already applying it beyond Paul’s intended scope. Even if not, some who see your T-shirt will not know the original context and are likely to misunderstand.
  8. This is known as “madrigalism,” on which see further Stapert, Handel’s Messiah, 83.
  9. On this, see, for example, Michael Steinberg, Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 148–50; and Stapert, Handel’s Messiah, 42.
  10. Revisions were also made in later times for performances—for instance, by none other than Mozart! See Steinberg, Choral Masterworks, 150–54.
  11. David B. Greene, The Theology of Handel’s “Messiah,” Beethoven’s “Credo,” and Verdi’s “Dies Irae”: How Listening to Sung Theology Leads to the Contemplation of God (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 2012), 14. See also p. 18, where he writes, “The harmonically generated relations among the texts give each text a particular force and nuance. In short, musical relations supplement or replace the role of grammar in relating the words to one another.”
  12. There has been extensive discussion in recent years about whether Messiah is anti-Jewish. It is interesting that the work can be construed both as reflecting and as challenging points of view that prevailed in its time. See Michael Marissen, Tainted Glory in Handel’s Messiah (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014); the response to an earlier version of one of Marissen’s chapters by John H. Roberts, “False Messiah,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 63, no. 1 (2010): 45–97; and Benjamin Ivry’s article “Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an Anti-Semitic Screed?,” Forward, April 12, 2014,
  13. Denis Stevens, “Messiah: An Oratorio Written by George Frideric Handel,” Baroque Music, accessed September 12, 2022,
  14. John Newton, Messiah. Fifty Expository Discourses, on the Series of Scriptural Passages, Which Form the Subject of the Celebrated Oratorio of Handel (London: Printed for the author and sold by J. Buckland and J. Johnson, 1786),; John Newton, “Sermon L. The Universal Chorus,” in Messiah, vol. 2, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, accessed September 30, 2022,
  15. Ben Finane, Handel’s Messiah and His English Oratorios: A Closer Look (New York: Continuum, 2009), 22. See also pp. 38–40 on Handel’s Israel in Egypt and the reaction to it.
  16. This interview with Soli Deo Gloria is shared on their YouTube channel.


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The Bible and Music by James F. McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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