Studying Christ in Handel's Messiah

“Hallelujah!” means praise — and for most Christians raised in the Western tradition, is associated with George Frideric Handel’s “Halleuljah Chorus” in his composition, “Messiah”, a common Christmas-time favourite.

But why exactly do we sing “hallelujah” about Christ?

Many may not realise that “Messiah” was really written to instruct an atheistic culture about the great promise of a Saviour and our rescue.

In July 1741, Charles Jennens had sent the prodigious composer Handel an equally brilliant text for a musical piece. A wealthy landowner and patron of the arts, Jennens had stitched together texts from both the Old and New Testaments based on the 1611 King James Version, having had much practice editing Shakespeare’s King Lear, Hamlet and Julius Caesar, to name a few. Filled with excitement, he would later write to his friend Edward Holdsworth on 10 July: "I hope [Handel] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other subject. The Subject is Messiah".

What should we know about the structure of “Messiah”? Essentially, that “Messiah” is a work in Christ-centered Bible storytelling. Matthew J. Hall has outlined the structure in a helpful way, which we've reproduced below.

Handel's messiah part 1 Handel's messiah part 2 Handel's messiah part 3
  • No. 1. Overture
Scene 1: The Prophecy of Salvation
  • No. 2. Recit (Tenor): Comfort ye my people (Isaiah 40:1–3)
  • No. 3. Air (Tenor): Every valley shall be exalted (Isaiah 40:4)
  • No. 4. Chorus: And the glory of the Lord (Isaiah 40:5)
Scene 2: The Prophecy of the manner of Salvation, in the the coming of a Messiah
  • No. 5. Recit (Bass): Thus saith the Lord (Haggai 2:6, 7; Malachi 3:1)
  • No. 6. Air (Alto): But who may abide (Malachi 3:2)
  • No. 7. Chorus: And He shall purify (Malachi 3:3)
Scene 3: The Prophecy of the manner of the Messiah’s coming, through Virgin Birth
  • No. 8. Recit (Alto): Behold, a Virgin shall conceive (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23)
  • No. 9. Air (Alto) and Chorus: O thou that tellest good tidings (Isaiah 40:9; 60:1)
Scene 4: The Prophecy of the manner of the Nativity of the Christ
  • No. 10. Recit (Bass): For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth (Isaiah 60:2, 3)
  • No. 11. Air (Bass): The people that walked in darkness (Isaiah 9:2)
  • No. 12. Chorus: For unto us a child is born (Isaiah 9:6)
Scene 5: The Nativity of Christ: Christmas
No. 13. Pifa (Pastoral Symphony)
  • No. 14. Recit (Soprano): There were shepherds abiding in the field (Luke 2:8)
  • No. 15. Recit (Soprano): And the angel said unto them (Luke 2:10, 11)
  • No. 16. Recit (Soprano): And suddenly there was with the angel (Luke 2:13)
  • No. 17. Chorus: Glory to God (Luke 2:14)
  • No. 18. Air (Soprano): Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion (Zechariah 9:9, 10)


Scene 6: Christ’s miracles
  • No. 19. Recit (Alto): Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened (Isaiah 35:5, 6)
  • No. 20. Air (Alto): He shall feed his flock (Isaiah 40:11) Air (Soprano): Come unto Him (Matthew 11:28, 29)
  • No. 21. Chorus: His yoke is easy, and His burthen light (Matthew 11:30)
Scene 1: Icon of the Lamb
  • No. 22. Chorus: Behold the Lamb of God (John 1:29)
  • No. 23. Air (Alto): He was despised (Is 53:3, 50:6)
Scene 2: The Passion
  • No. 24. Chorus: Surely He hath borne our griefs (Is 53:4–5)
  • No. 25. Chorus: And with His stripes we are healed (Is 53:5)
  • No. 26. Chorus: All we like sheep have gone astray (Is 53:6)
Scene 3: The Crucifixion
  • No. 27. Recit (Tenor): All they that see Him laugh Him to scorn (Ps 22:7)
  • No. 28. Chorus: He trusted in God that He would deliver Him (Ps 22:8)
  • No. 29. Recit (Tenor): Thy rebuke hath broken His heart (Ps 69:20)
  • No. 30. Air (Tenor): Behold, and see if there be any sorrow (Lamen 1:12)
Scene 4: His death, His passing through Hell, and His Resurrection
  • No. 31. Recit (Tenor): He was cut off out of the land of the living (Is 53:8)
  • No. 32. Air (Tenor): But Thou didst not leave His soul in Hell (Ps 16:10)
  • No. 33. Chorus: Lift up your heads, o ye gates (Ps 24:7–10) 
Scene 5: “Noli me tangere”: The Resurrected Christ
  • No. 34. Recit (Tenor): Unto which of the Angels said He (Heb 1:5)
  • No. 35. Chorus: Let all the angels of God worship Him (Heb 1:6)

 

Scene 6: The Ascension
  • No. 36. Air (Alto): Thou art gone up on high (Ps 68:18)
  • No. 37. Chorus: The Lord gave the Word (Ps 68:11)
  • Scene 7: The beginning of evangelism after Pentecost
  • No. 38. Air (Soprano): How beautiful are the feet of them (Rom 10:15)
  • No. 39. Chorus: Their sound is gone out into all lands (Rom 10:18)
  • Scene 8: The world and its rulers reject the Gospel
  • No. 40. Air (Bass): Why do the nations so furiously rage (Ps 2:1, 2)
  • No. 41. Chorus: Let us break their bonds asunder (Ps 2:3)

 

Scene 9: God’s triumph over the Heathen and the primacy of Christendom
  • No. 42. Recit (Tenor): He that dwelleth in heaven (Ps 2:4)
  • No. 43. Air (Tenor): Thou shalt break them (Ps 2:9)
  • No. 44. Chorus: Hallelujah (Rev 19:6; 11:15; 19:6)
Scene 1: The Promise of Redemption from Adam’s Fall
  • No. 45. Air (Soprano): I know that my Redeemer liveth (Job 19:25–6; 1 Cor 15:20)
  • No. 46. Chorus: Since by man came death (1 Cor 15:21) 
Scene 2: Judgment Day
  • No. 47. Recit (Bass): Behold, I tell you a mystery (1 Cor 15:51, 52)
  • No. 48. Air (Bass): The trumpet shall sound (1 Cor 15:52, 53)
Scene 3: The Final Victory over Death and Sin
  • No. 49. Recit (Alto): Thus shall be brought to pass (1 Cor 15:54)
  • No. 50. Duet (Alto and Tenor): O Death, where is thy sting? (1 Cor 15:55, 56)
  • No. 51. Chorus: But thanks be to God (1 Cor 15:57)
Scene 4: Icon of Christ in Majesty
  • No. 52. Air (Soprano): If God be for us, who can be against us? (Rom 8:31, 33, 34)
  • No. 53. Chorus: Worthy is the Lamb that was slain (Rom 5:12, 13)

Popular tradition holds that Handel was truly inspired in the process of his composition, and he completed the giant score in only 23 days, a truly unbelievable musical achievement. At the end of his manuscript Handel wrote the letters "SDG”, short for “Soli Deo Gloria”, Latin for “To God Alone Be The Glory".

An urban legend that has since grown around “Messiah” is that when King George II of Britain heard it at its London premiere, he was so moved that he rose to his feet during the “Hallelujah Chorus”, which prompted everyone else to do the same. If the King himself had stood in awe at the news of the Saviour, how could everyone else remained seated? To this day, it is common practice for concert goers to rise from their seats during the Chorus.

During Christmas, why not spend some time listening to Handel’s “Messiah”, paying close attention to what you learn about Jesus — the Hallelujah Oratorio plays “Messiah” at the Esplanade on 22nd December 2018, tickets are available at SISTIC. You could also have a listen to the whole oratorio free on Spotify, or Youtube.