A Recent Encounter with Handel’s ‘Messiah’



With one exception, you’re probably not likely to hear a performance of Handel’s Messiah at any other point in the year than Christmas, a time when professional musicians (period and modern) stay employed by doing the Messiah rounds. And if you play an instrument called for in Handel’s score, you stand to make quite a bit of money. Good thing, too, since January tends to be a lean month.

This past Christmas I was hired to play only one Messiah. Unlike a good number of typical performances, ours presented Handel’s work in its entirety, all three parts and nothing cut (with the “Hallelujah” chorus in its proper place—at the end of the part two).

I have to admit that it’s been a long time since I played an entire Messiah, yet I’ve played parts of it on many occasions in the interim. In other words, I was coming to the performance fresh without the “help me, Lord, here comes another one” sentiment that musicians feel when a run is about to begin.

This perspective came with few thoughts that I pondered throughout my one and only performance.

  • Messiah is a long piece that demands some serious concentration. Thankfully, it’s also fun to play and I never get tired of its arias, choruses, or recitatives. As a harpsichordist, even if you’ve played a lot of Handel, it doesn’t necessarily prepare you for some of the twists and turns that are in the work.
  • The “Hallelujah” chorus, one of the most recognizable tunes in classical music, is not as benign as I remember it. In fact, it follows one of the more violent arias, “Thou shallt break with a rod of iron.” Apparently, part of the chorus’ point is to celebrate the demise of the non-believer.
  • Our performance was modeled on a ‘Dublin’ version of Messiah, meaning that some of the arias and choruses that we’re used to hearing were replaced by alternate versions (Handel mixed and matched depending on where he was conducting and what singers he had on hand). Not only were some of the alternates a nice surprise, but they were more beautiful and more interesting that what we usually hear.

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