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Hallelujah! 'Messiah' is beloved holiday tradition

Published: Sunday, Dec. 20 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

What would the holiday season be without George Frideric Handels' "Messiah"?

For most people the yuletide wouldn't be the same without attending at least one performance or taking part in the Utah Symphony's annual "Messiah Sing Along" or listening to it on the radio or a CD.

Since the last century, Handel's beloved oratorio has become as much a holiday musical tradition in the United States as "The Nutcracker." Everyone who knows the work has a favorite aria or two, whether it's "Oh Thou That Tellest Good Tidings," "Ev'ry Valley" or "Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion." And of course everyone sings along whenever the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's rendition of the "Hallelujah Chorus" plays on the radio.

Christmas just wouldn't be the same without "Messiah." But that wasn't always so.

"Messiah" was never intended as a work for the Christmas season. Its first performance occurred in April 1742 in Dublin as a benefit to free men incarcerated in debtor's prison. In London, during Handel's lifetime, it was always performed near the end of the regular opera season, which ran from October to April. It wasn't until the 20th century that "Messiah" became associated with Christmas.

But one thing never changed: the immense popularity of the work. By the time Handel died in 1759, "Messiah" proved to be his most popular work, receiving more performances than any of his two dozen other oratorios. It was presented at least once each season in London, and it was performed frequently elsewhere throughout Britain and Ireland. Handel himself directed more than 30 performances.

Even though Handel is remembered today chiefly for "Messiah," he didn't start out as a composer of religious music. Early on he kept an eye on the tastes of the time and wrote works in the genres that were in vogue. That was especially true after he moved permanently to England in 1712. With his keen sense of musical trends and shrewd business savvy, Handel became the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day.

Handel was born on Feb. 23, 1685, in Halle, Germany, a month before J.S. Bach and less than a hundred miles away. But that's where the similarities between the two greatest composers of the early 18th century end.

Bach never strayed far from his hometown and was a religious and humble man who believed the purpose of a musician was to serve God.

Handel was generous and kind to be sure, but he was also worldly and cosmopolitan. As a young composer he traveled to Italy — which was the center of the musical universe in the early 1700s — to hone his art. And once he settled in London, he became the most celebrated English composer since Henry Purcell and the most famous composer in Europe.

Unlike so many composers before and since, Handel was well off financially. Italian opera reigned supreme when the young German immigrant arrived in the British Isles, and it was in the theater that he made his early fortune. He would eventually write some 40 operas (of those only "Giulio Cesare" is ever performed with any frequency today).

But changing tastes in England eventually brought an end to Italian opera's dominance. With storylines based on the deeds of Greek and Roman gods and ancient heroes, its appeal was directed toward the nobility. But a slowly emerging middle class demanded a different type of entertainment and English composers such as Thomas Arne (remembered today for writing the music to "Rule, Britannia") began composing operas in English based on simpler plots and with characters to whom people could relate. And it caught the new opera-going public's fancy.

By the mid-1730s, Handel was in dire straits. Attendance at performances of his operas in London had fallen drastically, his income had decreased disastrously and he was in fear he might end up in debtor's prison himself. He realized he needed to adapt himself to the changing circumstances but was uncertain about how to do it.

Enter Charles Jennens.

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