Structure of Handel's Messiah
|by George Frideric Handel|
Title page of Handel's autograph score
|Text||Charles Jennens, from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer|
|Movements||53 in three parts|
|Scoring||S A T B soloists and choir; instruments|
- For the full text, scriptural references and sound samples, see Messiah on Wikisource
The libretto by Jennens is drawn from the Bible: mostly from the Old Testament of the King James Bible, but with several psalms taken from the Book of Common Prayer. Regarding the text, Jennens commented: "...the Subject excells every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah ...".
Messiah differs from Handel's other oratorios in that it does not contain an encompassing narrative, instead offering contemplation on different aspects of the Christian Messiah:
Messiah is not typical Handel oratorio; there are no named characters, as are usually found in Handel’s setting of the Old Testament stories, possibly to avoid charges of blasphemy. It is a meditation rather than a drama of personalities, lyrical in method; the narration of the story is carried on by implication, and there is no dialogue.
Structure and concept
The oratorio's structure follows the liturgical year: Part I corresponding with Advent, Christmas, and the life of Jesus; Part II with Lent, Easter, the Ascension, and Pentecost; and Part III with the end of the church year—dealing with the end of time. The birth and death of Jesus are told in the words of the prophet Isaiah, the most prominent source for the libretto. The only true "scene" of the oratorio is the annunciation to the shepherds which is taken from the Gospel of Luke. The imagery of shepherd and lamb features prominently in many movements, for example: in the aria "He shall feed His flock like a shepherd" (the only extended piece to talk about the Messiah on earth), in the opening of Part II ("Behold the Lamb of God"), in the chorus "All we like sheep", and in the closing chorus of the work ("Worthy is the Lamb").
The librettist arranged his compilation in "scenes", each concentrating on a topic.
- Part I
- "The prophecy and realisation of God's plan to redeem mankind by the coming of the Messiah"
- Scene 1: "Isaiah's prophecy of salvation" (movements 2–4)
- Scene 2: "The prophecy of the coming of Messiah and the question, despite (1), of what this may portend for the World" (movements 5–7)
- Scene 3: "The prophecy of the Virgin Birth" (movements 8–12)
- Scene 4: "The appearance of the Angels to the Shepherds" (movements 13–17)
- Scene 5: "Christ's redemptive miracles on earth" (movements 18–21)
- Part II
- "The accomplishment of redemption by the sacrifice of Christ, mankind's rejection of God's offer, and mankind's utter defeat when trying to oppose the power of the Almighty"
- Scene 1: "The redemptive sacrifice, the scourging and the agony on the cross" (movements 22–30)
- Scene 2: "His sacrificial death, His passage through Hell and Resurrection" (movements 31–32)
- Scene 3: "His ascension" (movement 33)
- Scene 4: "God discloses his identity in Heaven" (movements 34–35)
- Scene 5: "Whitsun, the gift of tongues, the beginning of evangelism" (movements 36–39)
- Scene 6: "The world and its rulers reject the Gospel" (movements 40–41)
- Scene 7: "God's triumph" (movements 42–44)
- Part III
- "A Hymn of Thanksgiving for the final overthrow of Death"
- Scene 1: "The promise of bodily resurrection and redemption from Adam's fall" (movements 45–46)
- Scene 2: "The Day of Judgement and general Resurrection" (movements 47–48)
- Scene 3: "The victory over death and sin" (movements 49–52)
- Scene 4: "The glorification of the Messianic victim" (movement 53)
By the time Handel composed Messiah in London he was already a successful and experienced composer of Italian operas, and had created sacred works based on English texts, such as the 1713 Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate, and numerous oratorios on English libretti. For Messiah, Handel used the same musical technique as for those works, namely a structure based on chorus and solo singing.
The orchestra scoring is simple: oboes, strings and basso continuo of harpsichord, violoncello, violone and bassoon. Two trumpets and timpani highlight selected movements, in Part I the song of the angels, Glory to God in the highest, and with timpani the closing movements of both Part II, Hallelujah, and of Part III, Worthy is the Lamb.
Only two movements in Messiah are purely instrumental: the overture (written as "Sinfony" in Handel's autograph) and the Pifa (a pastorale introducing the shepherds in Bethlehem); and only a few movements are a duet or a combination of solo and chorus. The solos are typically a combination of recitative and aria. The arias are called Airs or Songs, and some of them are in da capo form, but rarely in a strict sense (repeating the first section after a sometimes contrasting middle section). Handel found various ways to use the format freely to convey the meaning of the text. Occasionally verses from different biblical sources are combined into one movement, however more often a coherent text section is set in consecutive movements, for example the first "scene" of the work, the annunciation of Salvation, is set as a sequence of three movements: recitative, aria and chorus. The center of Part III is a sequence of six movements based on a passage from Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians on the resurrection of the dead, a passage that Brahms also chose for Ein deutsches Requiem.
The movements marked "Recitative" (Rec.) are "secco", accompanied by only the continuo, whereas the recitatives marked "Accompagnato" (Acc.) are accompanied by additional string instruments. Handel used four voice parts, soprano (S), alto (A), tenor (T) and bass (B) in the solo and choral movements. Only once is the chorus divided in an upper chorus and a lower chorus, it is SATB otherwise. Handel uses both polyphon and homophon settings to illustrate the text. Even polyphon movements typically end on a dramatic long musical rest, followed by a broad homophon conclusion. Handel often stresses a word by extended coloraturas, especially in several movements which are a parody of music composed earlier on Italian texts. He uses a cantus firmus on long repeated notes especially to illustrate God's speech and majesty, for example "for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it" in movement 4.
The following tables are organized by movement numbers. There are two major systems of numbering the movements of Messiah: the historic Novello edition of 1959 (which is based on earlier editions and contains 53 movements), and the Bärenreiter edition of 1965 in the Hallische Händel-Ausgabe. Not counting some short recitatives as separate movements, it has 47 movements. The Novello number (Nov) is given first, then the Bärenreiter number (Bär).
|2||Comfort ye, comfort ye my people||Acc. T||Isaiah 40:1–3||Isaiah, a new Exodus|
|3||Ev’ry valley shall be exalted||Air T||Isaiah 40:4|
|4||And the glory, the glory of the Lord||Chorus||Isaiah 40:5|
|5||Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of Hosts
Behold, I will send my messenger
|Acc. B||Haggai 2:6–7
|Haggai, splendor of the temple
Malachi, the coming messenger
|6||But who may abide the day of His coming||Air A||Malachi 3:2|
|7||And He shall purify||chorus||Malachi 3:3|
|8||Behold, a virgin shall conceive||Rec. A||Isaiah 7:14
|Isaiah, virgin birth, quoted by Matthew|
|9 / 8||O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion
|Air A Chorus||Isaiah 40:9
|10 / 9||For behold, darkness shall cover the earth||Acc. B||Isaiah 60:2–3|
|11 / 10||The people that walked in darkness||Air B||Isaiah 9:2|
|12 / 11||For unto us a Child is born||Chorus||Isaiah 9:6|
|13 / 12||Pifa||Pastorale|
|14||There were shepherds abiding in the field||Rec. S||Luke 2:8||Gospel of Luke, Annunciation to the shepherds|
|15 / 13||And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them||Acc. S||Luke 2:9|
|And the angel said unto them||Rec. S||Luke 2:9–10|
|16 / 14||And suddenly there was with the angel||Acc. S||Luke 2:13|
|17 / 15||Glory to God in the highest||Chorus||Luke 2:14|
|18 / 16||Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion||Air S||Zechariah 9:9–10||Zechariah, God's providential dealings|
|19||Then shall the eyes of the blind open'd||Rec. A||Isaiah 35:5–6||Isaiah, oracle of salvation for Israel|
|20 / 17||He shall feed His flock like a shepherd
Come unto Him, all ye that labour
|Duet A S||Isaiah 40:11
|Isaiah, the Shepherd
Matthew, praise of the Father
|21 / 18||His yoke is easy, His burthen is light||Chorus||Matthew 11:30|
|No N / B||Title||Form||Bible source||Notes|
|22 / 19||Behold the Lamb of God||Chorus||John 1:29||Testimony of John the Baptist|
|23 / 20||He was despised
He gave his back to his smiters
|Air A||Isaiah 53:3
|Songs of the suffering servant 4, 3|
|24 / 21||Surely, He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows||Chorus||Isaiah 53:4–5||Man of Sorrows, 4 continued|
|25 / 22||And with His stripes we are healed||Chorus||Isaiah 53:5|
|26 / 23||All we like sheep, have gone astray||Chorus||Isaiah 53:6|
|27 / 24||All they that see Him, laugh Him to scorn||Acc. T||Psalms 22:7||Psalm 22|
|28 / 25||He trusted in God||Chorus||Psalms 22:8|
|29 / 26||Thy rebuke hath broken His heart||Acc. T||Psalms 69:20||Psalm 69|
|30 / 27||Behold, and see if there be any sorrow||Arioso T||Lamentations 1:12||Book of Lamentations|
|31 / 28||He was cut off out of the land of the living||Acc. T||Isaiah 53:8||Man of Sorrows|
|32 / 29||But Thou didst not leave his soul in hell||Air T||Psalms 16:10||Psalm 16|
|33 / 30||Lift up your heads||Chorus||Psalms 24:7–10||Psalm 24|
|34||Unto which of the angels said he at all time||Rec. T||Hebrews 1:5||Epistle to the Hebrews|
|35 / 31||Let all the angels of God worship Him||Chorus||Hebrews 1:6|
|36 / 32||Thou art gone up on high||Air B (or A)||Psalms 68:18||Psalm 68|
|37 / 33||The Lord gave the word||Chorus||Psalms 68:11|
|38 / 34||How beautiful are the feet of Him||Duet AI AII Chorus||Isaiah 52:7
|39 / 35||Their sound is gone out into all lands||Arioso T||Romans 10:18
|Psalm 19, The glory of God
Epistle to the Romans
|40 / 36||Why do the nations so furiously rage together||Air B||Psalms 2:1–2||Psalm 2|
|41 / 37||Let us break their bonds asunder||Chorus||Psalms 2:3|
|42||He that dwelleth in heaven||Rec. T||Psalms 2:4|
|43 / 38||Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron||Air T||Psalms 2:9|
|44 / 39||Hallelujah||Chorus||Revelation 19:6,16
|Book of Revelation|
|No N–B||Title||Form||Bible source||Notes|
|45 / 40||I know that my Redeemer liveth||Air S||Job 19:25–26||Book of Job, Messianic anticipation|
|46 / 41||Since by man came death||Chorus||1 Corinthians 15:21–22||Paul on the Resurrection of the dead|
|47 / 42||Behold, I tell you a mystery||Acc. B||1 Corinthians 15:51–52||Resurrection of the body|
|48 / 43||The trumpet shall sound
and the dead shall be rais'd
|Air B||1 Corinthians 15:52–53|
|49||Then shall be brought to pass||Rec. A||1 Corinthians 15:54||Victory over death|
|50 / 44||O death, where is thy sting?||Duet A T||1 Corinthians 15:55–56|
|51 / 45||But thanks be to God||Chorus||1 Corinthians 15:57|
|52 / 46||If God be for us, who can be against us||Air S||Romans 8:31,33–34||Paul's Assurance of salvation|
|53 / 47||Worthy is the Lamb that was slain||Chorus||Revelation 5:12–13||The creatures in heaven give praise|
Handel revised the work several times for specific performances. The alternative movements are part of the Bärenreiter edition, the Novello numbers are given in brackets.
|6a.||But who may abide||Air B|
|But who may abide||Rec. A|
|(15) 13a.||But lo, the angel of the Lord||Arioso S|
|(18) 16a.||Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion||Air S|
|(19)||Then shall the eyes of the blind||Rec. S|
|(20) 17a.||He shall feed His flock||Air S|
|(36) 32a.||Thou art gone up on high||Air B|
|(36) 32b.||Thou art gone up on high||Air S|
|(38) 34a.||How beautiful are the feet||Air S|
|(38) 34b.||How beautiful are the feet||Air A|
|(39) 35a.||Their sound is gone out||Chorus|
|(43)||Thou shalt break them||Rec. T|
- Block, Daniel I. (2001). "Handel's Messiah: Biblical and Theological Perspectives". Didaskalia 12 (2). Retrieved 19 July 2011.
- Heighes, Simon (1997). "George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) / Messiah] Simon Heighes, for The Sixteen recording, Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder". hyperion-records.co.uk. Retrieved 11 July 2011.
- Gascoigne, David (24 November 2007). "Text of pre-concert talk on Handel's Messiah". The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Retrieved 19 July 2011.
- Luckett, Richard (1992). Handel's Messiah: A Celebration. London: Victor Gollancz. ISBN 978-0-575-05286-4.
- Vickers, David (2012). "Messiah (HWV 56) "A Sacred Oratorio"". gfhandel.org. Retrieved 7 February 2013.
- Burrows, Donald (1991). Handel: Messiah. Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-37620-4.
- Messiah (Handel): Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- Deutsche Händelgesellschaft Edition, edited by Friedrich Chrysander, 1902
- Novello Edition, edited by Watkins Shaw, first published in 1959, revised and issued 1965
- Bärenreiter Edition, edited by John Tobin, published in 1965
- Peters Edition, edited by Donald Burrows, vocal score published 1972
- Handel's Messiah at the Center for Computer Assisted Research in the Humanities
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Messiah.|
|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- Messiah (Handel) at DMOZ
- Georg Friedrich Händel / Messiah (1742) / A Sacred Oratorio / Words by Charles Jennens opera.stanford.edu
- George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) / Messiah Simon Heighes, for The Sixteen recording, 1997