“Handel understands effect better than any of us—when he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.” No less an august personage that Mozart said this about the elder composer. And an apt statement it is, as Handel was truly a man of the theatre. His first love was Italian opera, and from 1711 to 1741 he composed nearly 40 such works and managed his own opera company in London. But in the late 1730s and 40s disaster struck Handel’s company. London audiences were tiring of Italian opera, revenues collapsed, and a newly founded rival company began halving profits.
A fortuitous exit ramp appeared in late summer of 1741, with an invitation to present a series of concerts in Dublin to benefit local charities. Handel gladly left town and turned to the similarly theatrical (but significantly less expensive) genre of oratorio as a short-term solution to his financial problems. Named for the side chapels in which they were performed in the 17th century, oratorios were theatrical presentations of vocal music on a sacred topic performed without staging or costumes. It was an ideal way for Handel to put his operatic talents to good use and on the cheap.
The idea for an oratorio on the life of Christ came from Charles Jennens, a wealthy literary scholar and Shakespeare editor. Jennens met Handel in the mid-1730s and shortly thereafter began collaborating with the composer, provided him with libretti for five oratorios in total. Jennens’ Messiah libretto draws from scripture to present a series of tableaux meditating on the life of Christ, which unfolds conceptually rather than narratively. Much like an Italian opera, the libretto is divided into three acts, the first relating to the prophecy of Christ’s coming and the circumstances of his birth, the second to the events of his life on earth, and the third to the resurrection and the promise of redemption.
Handel’s massive score was completed in the span of a mere twenty-four days, and while popular stories of divine inspiration have often been advanced to explain this feverish pace, James M. Keller has rather pointed to the composer’s regular work ethic as well as a healthy dose of self-plagiarism. The work was an immense success in Dublin, exceeding expectations raising 400 pounds for charity and freeing 142 men from debtor’s prison. Such was the excitement about the new work that prospective audience members were admonished to leave their swords and petticoat hoops at home so as to cram more spectators into the theatre. London audiences were originally skeptical over the juxtaposition of sacred texts and operatic music, but they too eventually came around. The work has not left the repertoire since its premiere, and has come to define the legacies of both Handel and the oratorio.