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George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Image from the score of ‘Messiah’ Autograph composition draft, 'Amen Chorus

'Messiah': autograph composition draft
British Library R.M.20.f.2., f.132v
Copyright © The British Library Board
A high-quality version of this image can be purchased from British Library Images Online. For more information email imagesonline@bl.uk

'Messiah' is probably Handel's most famous composition, and the opening bars of the Hallelujah chorus are familiar to everyone in the western world. Written in 1741, it was first performed in 1742, and is one of the most frequently-performed large choral works in the world today, particularly at Christmas and Easter.

Who was Handel?

Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was born in the same country, Germany, in the same year as Bach, though the two never met. In total contrast to Bach, the cosmopolitan Handel travelled far and wide. After a few years in Italy learning his craft, he enjoyed enormous commercial and artistic success in London, where he settled and even (by a special Act of Parliament) became an English citizen.

Handel was a no-nonsense bachelor: he never married and is not known to have had romantic liaisons. He was generally a sociable type who enjoyed his beer, though he had a reputation for being careful with money. The house where he lived in Brook St, London, is now a museum dedicated to the composer.

What characterises his music?

Handel wrote in the Italian baroque style: singing, long, florid melody lines over string chords that could chug briskly, or flow with languid, slow grace. His harmonic language was fairly straightforward, compared to Bach's complex dissonances, and he had a clear knack for writing memorable yet profound tunes.

Image for George Frideric Handel

Handel's works are usually designated by HWV numbers (from the German 'Handel-Werke-Verzeichnis', 'Handel-work-catalogue'), which run past the 600 mark

How did Messiah come about?

'Messiah' was written at a crucial point in Handel's career. Up until that time he had been best known as an opera composer, but public taste was changing. Oratorios were in fashion: dramatic works for solo singers, chorus and orchestra that tell a story, but without staging, acting, or singers each portraying a consistent role.

Despite the insertion of oratorio performances into his opera season in the 1730s, his work was receiving a mixed reaction. By April 1741 it was rumoured that he was on the point of leaving England because of the lack of success of his works in the theatre.

His friend and literary collaborator, Charles Jennens, wrote on 10 July: 'Handel says he will do nothing next Winter, but I hope I shall perswade him to set another Scripture Collection I have made for him...The Subject is Messiah...'. During that summer Handel received an invitation to visit Ireland later in the year, and this prompted him to begin work on Jennens's 'Messiah' text. he began work on 22 August, and by 28 August he had drafted part I, by 6 September part II, and part III is dated 12 September. The completion of the instrumentation took a further two days.

Where was it first heard?

Handel and his companions arrived in Ireland in November and 'Messiah' was given its first performance in the New Musick Hall, Fishamble Street, Dublin, on 13 April 1742.

It was an immediate success, though the first London performance was received less favourably. It was not until 1750, when Handel gave a benefit performance of the work at Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital, that its lasting popularity was established. Handel's composition score is the source from which the many different versions of 'Messiah' derive. From it, copies were made for performance, initially by Handel's principal copyist JC Smith, with revisions and corrections by the composer himself. Substantial changes were sometimes made for particular performances, often to suit the needs of the singers available.

How did the manuscript come to the British Library?

Well-known copies from Handel's lifetime include the 'Tenbury manuscript', used for the first Dublin performances, and the fair copy which the composer bequeathed, together with a set of vocal and instrumental parts, to the Foundling Hospital.

Most of Handel's manuscripts passed to JC Smith, whose son gave most of the autographs, among them 'Messiah', to George III. They were presented to the British Museum by Her Majesty the Queen in 1957, and thence to the British Library.

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