Operapedia: Messiah
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Operapedia: Messiah 

Henry Stewart tries to get a handle on the season’s most popular work of vocal music.


First Performance

Messiah had its premiere in Dublin on April 13, 1742, just a few weeks after Easter—the holiday with which it was associated before becoming a yuletide classic. It had been commissioned to raise funds for various local philanthropic causes, including imprisoned debtors and charitable hospitals. Handel had written it characteristically quickly—in a matter of weeks—before leaving London. The oratorio “is the very oldest work in the literature to have remained steadily in active repertoire since its first performance,” musicologist Richard Taruskin writes. “Messiah has never had to be rediscovered.”


Time and Place

style="text-align: right;"> In the early eighteenth century, Handel wrote dozens of operas, especially in Italian, but by the 1730s Italian opera’s popularity in England had declined “for a variety of reasons,” Encyclopedia Britannica explains, “one of them being the impatience of the English with a form of entertainment in an unintelligible language sung by artists of whose morals they disapproved.” Tastes had changed, and Handel finally changed with them, focusing on English-language oratorios from 1739 until his death, twenty years later.  

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© AKG-Images/De Agostini Picture Lib./A. Dagli Orti
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Something Completely Different 

After the success of Spamalot (2004), Monty Python alum Eric Idle reworked The Life of Brian into Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy), which had its premiere in Toronto in 2007. The oratorio buffo is about a man born in the manger next to Jesus’s who is eventually crucified. The choral spoof “We love sheep,” sung by a bunch of shepherds, makes it forever impossible to listen to Handel’s “All we like sheep have gone astray” without hearing it as if the chorus were singing, “Oh! We like sheep!”

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© Roadside Attractions/Amazon Studios/Photofest

Deep Cut

The aria “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd” is one of Messiah’s loveliest, promising divine comfort through gentle settings of Bible verses. Kenneth Lonergan employs it during Manchester by the Sea. “It’s one of those pieces that’s simultaneously just so beautiful that … you’re just reminded how gorgeous the world really is,” Lonergan told Terry Gross. “But it also has this incredible melancholy to it.”

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© Fotofeeling/Agefotostock

In Pop Culture

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The “Hallelujah” chorus has been used to score a gaudy fountain show at the Bellagio. It’s been used in Dumb and Dumber, when the title heroes, in need of a ride, encounter a bus full of hot babes on a national bikini tour. It’s been used everywhere from Spice World to Ernest Scared Stupid. But more obnoxious than them all is its use on the 1994 CD Have Yourself a Looney Tunes Christmas, in which it serves as the mortar holding together a medley of holiday favorites. The track is called “The Halle-Looney Chorus,” and the Handel melody is sung by a non­descript choir, set to new text: “Won’t you join us / in the Halle-Looney Chorus? Halle-Looney! Halle-Looney! It’s a Halle-Looney chorus!”

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© AKG-Images/British Lib.


The Basics 

This nonnarrative, abstract account of the life and death of Jesus uses various bits of scripture to make an exultant musical impression.


The Performance We’re Glad We Missed

The work has been performed three times at the Metropolitan Opera House—twice in 1895 and once in 1902. The first, with the Euterpe Society of Brooklyn chorus, was by most accounts dismal, despite the soloists’ being conducted by Met legend Anton Seidl . “The house was well filled, and the audience appeared to be well pleased,” according to The New York Times . “The pleasure was probably like that of a German musician who, after hearing a certain tenor sing Beethoven’s ‘Adelaide,’ said: ‘Ach! I never knew before how beautiful that song was. Even you could not spoil it.’ It was, indeed, a tribute to Handel’s masterpiece that it triumphed over such a poor interpretation.”  

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◀︎ ▶︎ 
Hit Tune  

The rapturous, glorious “Hallelujah” chorus, which ends Part II, is one of those few inescapable tunes that everyone has heard countless times—one of the true cultural touchstones of the Western world. It’s used every time a soundtrack editor wants to convey joy or optimism, from its employment in the 1967 film Thoroughly Modern Millie , when Millie first espies the wealthy man she plans to marry, to the first episode of Ren & Stimpy, “Big House Blues,” in which it’s heard as the cartoon cat and dog near starvation. “When the black, hoary clouds of despair darken your doorstep, look for that one ray of hope come a-shining down from above,” the voice-over narrator intones, and the Handel starts up—right before Ren and Stimpy are splattered by a dogcatcher’s truck. 
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Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy 


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© Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

Where It Is This Season

Performances abound in December, including by the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston and the New York Philharmonic. Musica Sacra also performs the work in New York, at Carnegie Hall, using period performance practices. The group’s annual Messiah is a favorite of Lonergan. “I’ve been going with my family … since I was eighteen,” he told Gross. “I think I’ve missed one or two years maybe.” spacer 

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