Illustration by Aaron Thorup
George Frederick Handel's "Messiah" was first performed in April 1742 as a benefit to free men incarcerated in debtor's prison.

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.

Jennens was a wealthy merchant who loved music and had an enviable collection of scores in his library. He had been an admirer of Handel's music since 1725, and he finally had the chance to meet the great composer some 10 years later. Jennens fancied himself a writer, and a few years after they met, he gave Handel the libretto for a theater piece in English.

That became the oratorio "Saul." Audiences loved the work, and with it Handel saw the direction his future would take. With Jennens' help, he was able to reinvent himself, regaining his place as the pre-eminent English composer of his generation.

That was in 1739. Two years later, Jennens supplied Handel with the libretto for a new oratorio that he fashioned from passages taken from the Old and New Testament dealing with Christ's life on Earth and his ascension, with passages reflecting on his sacrifice. Handel read it and gave it the simple title "Messiah."

Jennens' text caught Handel's imagination, so he began working on it at a feverish pace, finishing it in three weeks. During that time, he never left his house and barely came out of his room. A servant who brought him his meals said, "He was praying, or he was weeping, or he was staring into eternity."

There can be no doubt that Handel was inspired when he wrote the music for "Messiah." He admitted as much when he said about the "Hallelujah Chorus," which he had just completed, "I did think I did see all Heaven before me and the great God Himself."

And it wasn't just Handel who was moved. According to a contemporary account, King George II was present at the first performance of "Messiah" in London, and during the "Hallelujah Chorus" at the words "for the Lord God omnipotent," the king was so touched by what he was hearing that he stood up. And seeing their majesty on his feet, the audience swiftly followed suit. That's where the tradition to stand for this chorus originated.

Originally scheduled to be performed in London, Handel decided on premiering "Messiah" in Dublin's Musick Hall when he was asked to organize a charity performance there in 1742. A capacity crowd was expected, and in order to accommodate the audience men were asked to leave their swords at home and women were requested not to wear hooped dresses.

The performance was a huge success, and "Messiah" was repeated once more before Handel returned to London in June.

This success wasn't without controversy, though. Ever since cathedral choristers were used in "Esther," one of Handel's first oratorios, the Church of England had opposed performing religiously based works in theaters. The church considered the theater and Handel's music profane and subversive.

Jonathan Swift (of "Gulliver's Travels" fame, who was also a minister) led the opposition to "Messiah" in Dublin, almost preventing it from being performed when he threatened to forbid singers from St. Patrick's Cathedral to participate in the performance.

He reluctantly relented after he met with Handel, although Swift didn't seem to have been too impressed with him or his fame. While waiting to see the composer, Swift reportedly said, rather sarcastically, "O pray let me see a German genius before I die!"

The problems with "Messiah" and Handel's other oratorios based on religious subjects stemmed mainly from what was considered an oratorio in the early 18th century. It was a general term for any nonstaged theater work in English. That was why Handel felt compelled to call "Messiah" "A Sacred Oratorio" for its London premiere as a sort of disclaimer and to avoid any conflicts with church authorities.

Did Handel ever imagine that "Messiah" would still be performed nearly 270 years after its premiere? Probably not, but Handel grasped the depth of the music he had written and understood the impact it would have on listeners.

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There is an anecdote relating to the London premiere. After the performance, a nobleman approached Handel, thanking him for the wonderful "entertainment" he had composed. In his heavy German accent that he never lost, Handel replied, "My lord, I should be sorry that I only entertained them. I wish to make them better."

And that is exactly what Handel did. With "Messiah" he went far beyond merely entertaining his audience. He created a lasting work that can inspire and uplift its listeners in the simplest and most profound way. And Swift's opinion notwithstanding, "Messiah" is in truth the product of a genius.

Ed Reichel is a Deseret News music critic who has a doctorate in music.