Tonight, my mum is going to see the Messhissiah Messiah together with aunty Carolyn (Paddles‘ mom)


NZSO plays Handel's Meesiah


There are people who think that classical music is something for the upper layers of society, something for the elite. That is of course not true, but what is true is that when it comes to classical music, it’s not the music itself that counts. What counts is the story.

In an orchestra, the various individual instruments work together to produce a story. Listening to a symphonic orchestra is like having a book read out to you by a hundred different voices. And if you understand the story, if you can follow the storyline, you will find that listening to the orchestra is that much more enjoyable.

Take the story of the Messiah, arguably Handel’s most famous work.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was fluent in three languages (German, Italian, French), but not in English. It is therefore logical that he decided to move to the England for which he held a great esteem. Despite having lived in England for almost 50 years, his command of the English language remained amateurish at best.

dividerThe year is 1742. Handel is not in a good mood. Down on his luck, some might say. His work isn’t doing well at all, neither is his health. Then, one day, he receives an invitation from the Third Duke of Devonshire and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, William Cavendish, to travel to Dublin – an invitation he eagerly accepts.

The Dublin of 1742, however, was quite a different place from the Dublin of today. In those days, Dublin was more English than England itself. Considered the second city in England, it was ruled by the English, inhabited by the English and everything happening there was modelled upon English traditions and values. Since the English were Protestants, the freedom for Catholics was severely restricted. The city had two magnificent cathedrals – both Anglican. If you’re a bit of a book-buff: in those days, the Dean of Dublin’s St Patricks Cathedral was Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels.

Like it or not, but religion is big business. The people of 1742 understood that perfectly clear as well. They knew that a musical performance (or any kind of performance, for that matter) for which tickets would be sold, would not do well. But that same performance organised as a charitable event would bring in the publicity, bring in the high rollers and thus bring in the money. A lot of things have changed since those days, but some things will always remain the same.

dividerMeanwhile, Handel had been working hard on his latest musical score. More than just another piece of music, Handel wanted to use this piece to express his gratitude towards England, towards the English, and towards Dublin specifically. Every single note, every single choir line breathes England.

So, it was on 27 March 1742 that the Dublin Journal printed the following announcement:

For the relief of the prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the support of Mercer’s hospital in Stephen’s Street, and for the charitable ifrmary on the Inns Quay, on Monday the 12th of April, will be performed at the Musick Hall in Fishamble Street, Mr Handel’s new Grand Oratorio, call’d the MESSIAH, in which gentlemen of the choirs of both Cathedrals will assist, with some concertoes on the organ, by Mr Handell.

In those days, it was common practice to revert to the Bible (one of the Christian ones), take a random biblical story and rewrite that into an opera, a symphony, a play, and so on. Handel’s Messiah was different. Rather than rewriting biblical stories, the texts used in the Messiah are quotes, text taken directly from the Book.

Take the most well known part of the Messiah, the piece that everyone recognises even though you might not know it’s from the Messiah: the Hallelujah-chorus.

This video shows a performance of the Santa Monica High School from 2011. It sounds wonderful, but what is the choir actually singing?

Hallelujah: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth
The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord
and of His Christ
and He shall reign for ever and ever.

King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.


Good morning! That’s quite a statement for today’s time and age, when most religions have redefined the actual meaning of religiousness, and when most people have learned to emphasize the spiritual aspect of religion rather than the code of laws aspect.

dividerNot everybody appreciated the Messiah. Well regarded theologian Charles Jennens commented after the première: “His Messiah has disappointed me, being set in great hast tho’he said he would be a year about it and make the best of all his compositions. I shall put no more Sacred Words into his hands, to be thus abus’d.”

Never mind the handful of critics, the Messiah was generally quite well received and quickly grew in reputation. Aiming to unite all classes of society, it was befitting that the Messiah was performed before the King of England of those days; His Royal Highness King George II  . You have to know that the Messiah is a rather long work (a bit over 2 hours!). As the story goes, by the time the performance had arrived at the Hallelujah chorus the king was desperate to stretch his legs. So, he stood up. Royal protocol dictates (in those days as well as today) that when the King or Queen stands up, everybody else stands up as well. So, as soon as the King stood up, the entire audience stood up as well.

The official version of that story is simply that the King stood up out of respect for God. Which story is the truth, well, we will never know, but it is a pretty safe bet that both stories are at least partly true. Fact is, that ever since that day, audiences everywhere have been standing up for the duration of the Hallelujah chorus and continue to do so today.

dividerThe Messiah became Handel’s greatest success, commercially. But he never forgot the Messiah’s origins – a charitable event for prisoners and infants. In his testament, he stated that the Messiah would belong to the Foundling Hospital in London, so that it would continue to serve those in need forever.


Handel – Messiah
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Saturday 13 December 2014, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, starts 18:30, More info


Merry Christmas, whether you celebrate it or not.

And be nice…

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