First Performance of Handel’s

In an attempt to branch out from Italian opera, at which he was an acknowledged master, Handel composed Messiah, an English concert oratorio that would become his most famous work. The oratorio achieved an effect for which Handel had been searching, combining artistic and popular appeal, and it has withstood both time and revision by other composers.

Summary of Event

On April 13, 1742, George Frideric Handel presented a new oratorio, Messiah, in Dublin, Ireland. Although German, Handel had enjoyed a successful career in London largely as a composer of Italian-style operas. Opera;George Frideric Handel[Handel] However, taste in entertainment having changed, Handel turned to another large vocal form, oratorio, Oratorios which appealed to a broader audience. [kw]First Performance of Handel’s Messiah (Apr. 13, 1742)
[kw]Messiah, First Performance of Handel’s (Apr. 13, 1742)
[kw]Handel’s Messiah, First Performance of (Apr. 13, 1742)
[kw]Performance of Handel’s Messiah, First (Apr. 13, 1742)
Messiah (Handel)
Classical music
[g]Ireland;Apr. 13, 1742: First Performance of Handel’s Messiah[1090]
[c]Music;Apr. 13, 1742: First Performance of Handel’s Messiah[1090]
Handel, George Frideric
Jennens, Charles
Swift, Jonathan
Swieten, Gottfried van
Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus

In fact, Handel invented the English concert version of the oratorio. By Handel’s time, the oratorio was no longer intended for church performance. It had begun, like opera, in Italy, and, like opera, it was a three-part vocal work written in Italian, consisting of speechlike recitatives, melodic arias, and choruses, with instrumental accompaniment. Unlike opera, oratorio was performed without stage sets, costumes, or acting. Because of its simpler presentation and religious or devotional story line, oratorio was considered proper entertainment during the penitential season before Easter.

During the 1730’s in Britain, the new ballad opera eclipsed elaborate Italian opera in popularity. Because ballad opera was lighter in style and subject matter and was performed in English rather than Italian, it appealed to the growing English middle class, Middle class;and classical music[classical music] attracting a wider audience. Handel began to lean toward writing oratorios in English and successfully produced several such works. In 1739, Charles Jennens, a wealthy eccentric who had already provided Handel with libretti for several oratorios, showed him another, a compilation of biblical texts concerning the life and mission of Jesus Christ. Handel was occupied with another project and put Jennens’s book aside temporarily.

By the summer of 1741, Handel was ready to consider the libretto his friend had given him. It is said that he was inspired by the text, and indeed, he might have been. In only three weeks, between August 22 and September 14, Handel finished writing the score, allegedly declaring that as he worked on the music he thought he had seen both God and Heaven. Christianity;and classical music[classical music]
Music;and Christianity[Christianity]

Jennens’s libretto for Messiah was unusual because it did not tell a story, as was customary for oratorio at that time. It consisted of three sections, but rather than dramatizing the life of Christ, it conveyed the message of Jesus’s mission indirectly, through passages drawn from Old Testament prophecies of his coming, accounts in the Gospels of his birth and death, and verses from the book of Revelation declaring his redemption of humankind. Jennens conceived his text as an exercise in religious education for the audience.

Because Handel had been invited to present a series of six “musical entertainments” in Dublin, Messiah was first produced in that city rather than London, at Neale’s new music hall in Fishamble Street. At first, Handel had trouble hiring enough singers for his chorus. The famous author Jonathan Swift, also dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, balked at the idea of performing a sacred text in a theater and nearly refused to allow his singers to participate. He relented, but his feelings reflected a commonly held opinion and foreshadowed future problems.

Anticipation ran high. Foreseeing a large attendance, newspaper announcements requested that ladies not wear hoops under their skirts and that men leave their swords at home. The performance did not disappoint. Messiah was a resounding success in Dublin, drawing a huge audience and critical comments such as “sublime,” “grand,” and “tender” for the music and “elevated, majestic, and moving” for the text. One story about that first performance illustrates the audience’s total involvement with the work: One female soloist was an acquaintance of Handel who had retired from the London stage because of well-publicized love affairs. When she finished the aria “He Was Despised,” a member of the audience, the Reverend Dr. Delany, reportedly was so moved that he leaped to his feet, declaring that because of her performance her sins would be forgiven.

Encouraged by his success in Dublin, on March 23, 1743, Handel introduced Messiah at Covent Garden Theatre Covent Garden Theatre, London in London, where he was not so fortunate. Church officials, concerned as Swift had been in Dublin about the performance of a sacred text in a public hall, strenuously objected. The critics gave the work cool reviews. Even Jennens expressed disappointment in Handel’s treatment of his libretto, declaring that the music was composed in too short a time to do justice to the text. Handel moved on to other projects that redeemed him in the public’s eye, and Messiah was nearly forgotten.

It was not until 1750 that Handel brought Messiah back. He used it to benefit London’s Foundling Hospital, performing it in that institution’s chapel—his only presentation of the work in a religious setting. From then on, Messiah was performed almost yearly at the Foundling Hospital and with increasing frequency in other locations as well, achieving great popularity by the time Handel died in 1759. In the years after Handel’s death, Messiah continued to be a favorite. Massive performances of Messiah, involving hundreds, became quite popular. Its publication in 1767 made the oratorio more widely available, and it went through several subsequent editions.

In 1789, at a concert in Vienna, Messiah received a performance that would change the way the work was presented for years thereafter. As a diplomat in England in the 1760’s, Gottfried van Swieten had been impressed by Handel’s music and had acquired a copy of the first edition of Messiah, which he took home to Austria. In 1789, van Swieten presented Messiah at several benefit concerts, having hired Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to flesh out the accompaniment.

Although a small ensemble of strings, keyboard, and a few sparsely used winds made up Messiah’s original instrumentation, Handel himself augmented or diminished his forces depending on the availability of performers (and perhaps money to pay them). Mozart similarly modified the piece’s ensemble: He replaced the keyboard with added strings and pairs of flutes, clarinets, oboes, bassoons, and horns, along with three trumpets and tympani. Van Swieten, meanwhile, made cuts in the text and reassigned solos. Their aim was to bring a by-then-old-fashioned masterpiece into the current style. Mozart’s alterations were meant for a particular set of performances. Neither he nor van Swieten supposed that their work would become the standard for future performances of Messiah, but it did nonetheless. Because Mozart was an acclaimed master and because his alterations to the text and score were elegant and pleasing, his arrangement became the basis for most later revisions of the work. Only in the late twentieth century did Handel’s original scoring again come to be used consistently.

One custom attached to Messiah has come down from its beginnings to the present. At the second London performance, King George II, George II who happened to be in attendance, suddenly stood up Ovations, tradition of during the Hallelujah Chorus. Perhaps he was moved by the grandeur of the music. Perhaps he needed to stretch his legs (concerts at that time could last several hours). Whatever the reason, because it was against protocol to remain seated when the monarch stood, the entire audience rose to its feet, and a tradition was born that is still observed today.


Handel wrote Messiah at a time when both composers and listeners had started to move away from the grand, complex Baroque style to lighter music that appealed to a wider audience. Handel understood this, and by writing oratorios in English that combined moving, melodic arias with stirring choruses, he became part of the transition between the Baroque and the classical styles. Messiah is a high point in Handel’s career, and because it is unique, it remains the best-known work of a master composer and the most beloved of all oratorios.

Further Reading

  • Buelow, George J. A History of Baroque Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. A good overview of Baroque music and Handel’s place in that tradition.
  • Bullard, Roger A.“Messiah”: The Gospel According to Handel’s Oratorio. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans-Lightning Source, 1993. A commentary on Jennens’s libretto for Messiah.
  • Burrows, Donald. Handel: Messiah. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. This history of Handel’s development of the English oratorio discusses the process of composing Messiah, up to its first performance.
  • Cottle, Andrew. “Mozart’s Arrangement of Messiah.” Choral Journal 31, no. 9 (April, 1991): 19-24. Mozart’s changes to Handel’s setting of Messiah.
  • Featherstone, J. Scott. Hallelujah: The Story of the Coming Forth of Handel’s “Messiah.” Eugene, Oreg.: ACW Press, 2001. A fictionalized account of Handel’s life and the coming forth of Messiah.
  • Hogwood, Christopher. Handel. London: Thames & Hudson, 1984. A detailed account of Handel’s life, development as a composer, and acceptance by audiences to the end of the twentieth century.
  • Larsen, Jens Peter. Handel’s Messiah: Origins, Composition, Sources. New York: W. W. Norton, 1957. Examines Handel’s development of English oratorio, surveys the Messiah, and discusses changes to text and music made by Handel to accommodate performance conditions.
  • Luckett, Richard, and Diane Sterling. Handel’s Messiah: A Celebration. New York: Harvest/HBJ Books, 1995. Explores the musical and social background and performance history of the Messiah.
  • Myers, Robert Manson. Handel’s Messiah: A Touchstone of Taste. New York: Octagon Books, 1971. A detailed account of Handel’s career leading up to the Messiah. Includes discussion of its composition and performance history.
  • Robbins Landon, H. C. Handel and His World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984. A compilation of earlier scholarship with corrections and commentary.

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