What explains the durable popularity of Handel’s 'Messiah' (especially at Christmas)?

What explains the durable popularity of Handel’s 'Messiah' (especially at Christmas)?

THE QUESTION: Handel’s oratorio “Messiah” — the Easter cantata that is so frequently heard at Christmastime — is probably the most-performed and most-beloved piece of great music ever written. What explains this long-running appeal?


Underlying this theme is the poignant reality that our culture and many of its churches are gradually losing historical moorings that include the excellent fine arts created in former times. So how and why does “Messiah,” which exemplifies the “classical” musical style and faith of 276 years ago, so hold its own today?

By most estimates, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) does not quite equal a peerless fellow German composer and a contemporary he never met, J.S. Bach (1685-1750). But in terms of popularity and number of performances, not to mention seasonal sing-alongs, this one among Handel’s 30 oratorios overshadows Bach’s monumental Christian works such as the “Christmas Oratorio,” “Mass in B Minor,” “St. John Passion” and “St. Matthew “Passion.”

Handel biographer Jonathan Keates tells the remarkable story of the famed oratorio in his 2017 book “Messiah: The Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece” — a good gift suggestion.

In a fit of inspiration, Handel dashed off all of his oratorio’s 53 sections in just three weeks. (Of course tunesmith Bach was expected to turn out a new choral number almost every week.) The first performance in the Easter season of 1742 — in Dublin, Ireland, instead of England — was a triumph.

The London premiere the following March is remembered because King George II stood during the “Hallelujah Chorus” and was imitated by the audience. Listeners have done the same ever since, a tribute normally limited to patriotic anthems. George never officially explained his deed. But it has always been assumed he believed a Christian king should express obeisance to the eternal “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” per the text sung from the Book of Revelation.

There was some trouble with the London gig.

Bluenoses thought it faintly blasphemous that a Christian oratorio was being performed in the secular Covent Garden theater instead of a church.

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Famous church choirmaster and organist dies and, oh yeah, faith helped shape his work

Famous church choirmaster and organist dies and, oh yeah, faith helped shape his work

Let me confess, straight off, that this post is personal for me. I have, you see, been a church musician longer than I have been a journalist -- dating back to singing soprano in a classical boys choir. In college I was blessed to sing under the great Anglican choirmaster Robert H. Young (yes, at Baylor University) in his classical touring choir and I missed only two rehearsals in six years of undergraduate and graduate work. There is no way to express what sacred choral music means to me.

Thus, I know first hand the tensions that exist between the standards of classical performance and the singing done by normal church sanctuary choirs. I have known my share of elite choir snobs. At one point I was an elite choir snob.

So I read with great interest the New York Times piece on the recent death of the great organist and choirmaster John Scott, an Anglican who most recently was director of music at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

The article -- as it should -- emphasized his achievements as a performing artist on both sides of the Atlantic. He had just returned from recitals in Europe and was poised to begin the second leg of that tour. His second wife is expecting their first child in a few weeks. There is much to report about his life and career:

Mr. Scott played at the Boston Early Music Festival in June. His last American appearance was a Bach recital at St. Thomas on June 20.

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