The Composition and Afterlife of Handel's Masterpiece


By Jonathan Keates

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From Handel’s renowned biographer, the story of one of the most celebrated compositions of Western classical music, Handel’s famous oratorio, Messiah

In the late summer of 1741, George Friderick Handel, composed an oratorio set to words from the King James Bible, rich in tuneful arias and magnificent choruses. Jonathan Keates recounts the history and afterlife of Messiah, one of the best-loved works in the classical repertoire. He relates the composition’s first performances and its relationship with spirituality in the age of the Enlightenment, and examines how Messiah, after Handel’s death, became an essential component of our musical canon.

An authoritative and affectionate celebration of the high-point of the Georgian golden age of music, Messiah is essential reading for lovers of classical music.


The sixty-four-year-old George Frideric Handel in 1749, corpulent and bewigged, in a portrait by Thomas Hudson that was owned by the composer himself.



The making of Handel’s Messiah was an act of faith, in more senses than one, on the part of two remarkable men: the composer George Frideric Handel and his friend, the littérateur and musical enthusiast Charles Jennens. As devised by them both, the work represented an entirely new concept in the genre of sacred oratorio as understood during the mid-eighteenth century, hence there was no guarantee of a favourable reception at its earliest performances. In a cultural milieu so preoccupied with rules, canons, form and decorum, a unique musical artefact like Messiah would take time to establish itself with audiences and performers.

This is a tale of endurance, survival and ultimate triumph, marking the life-record of an outstanding work of art across two and a half centuries. Following Handel’s death in 1759, Messiah soon became the victim of its own popularity, a cult object overshadowing the versatility and originality of the master’s wider musical achievement in the field of opera, church music, chamber cantatas and instrumental compositions. Only during the twentieth century did a gradual recovery of the score as first conceived and performed bring its particular narrative to a kind of fortunate conclusion, which the sensibility of Handel’s own age would have seen as entirely fitting. We are in a more advantageous position than our Victorian ancestors to appreciate the conceptual profundity and deftness of design entailed in Charles Jennens’s ‘scripture collection’, and to admire the intense energy, idiomatic sophistication and imaginative focus with which Handel addressed himself to the task of setting this to music. I hope that this brief tribute to Messiah’s inherent robustness and integrity will encourage readers to listen to it—and take part in it—anew.



By 1741, the year in which he composed Messiah, George Frideric Handel was a dominant figure on London’s musical scene. Three decades earlier he had arrived as a visitor from his native Germany, presenting his opera Rinaldo at the Queen’s Theatre in the Haymarket, writing a court ode for the birthday of Queen Anne and composing church music for official celebrations of the Peace of Utrecht, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession. His professional profile, that of a sophisticated foreign artist gifted in a variety of musical forms and styles, was quickly established and he saw obvious advantages in making London his permanent home. The capital had its own lively culture of music and theatre, sustained by increasing prosperity as a business centre with a stock market in which Handel himself would become a shrewd investor. Geographically and socially, this eighteenth-century metropolis fell into two distinct zones: the City, where trading and banking took place, and, to the west, what was loosely called ‘the Town’, a fashionable, fast-expanding area of residential streets and squares surrounding the royal palace of St James’s and containing the theatres in which so much of the composer’s working life would be spent.

Handel’s music room in 25 Brook Street, Mayfair, where the composer made his home from 1723 until his death in 1759. The double-manual harpsichord is a modern copy of an eighteenth-century instrument by the Flemish firm of Ruckers.


In its smartest quarter, on the edge of Hyde Park (then still rural, grazed by sheep and cows), Handel chose to settle in 1723, taking a house on an annual lease in the newly built Brook Street, close to the church of St George’s, Hanover Square. The dedication of the church and the naming of the square were neither of them irrelevant to Handel’s fortunes.

In 1714, when Queen Anne died, she was succeeded not, as some had hoped, by her exiled half-brother James Francis Edward Stuart, but by her cousin Georg Ludwig, Elector of Hanover, who ascended the British throne as King George I. This proved an obvious advantage to the composer, who had spent a brief period as music director (Kapellmeister) at the court in Hanover. He may indeed have combined his visits to London in 1710 and 1712 with information-gathering in relation to the succession issue. King George came from a music-loving family and Handel found himself commissioned to write church canticles for the Chapel Royal at St James’s and to create what we now know as the Water Music, a sequence of airs and dance movements that accompanied a royal river excursion from Whitehall to Chelsea in the summer of 1717.

Hanover had its own opera house, so in London, at what was now the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, George I was happy to patronize a new enterprise, the so-called ‘Royal Academy of Music’, begun in 1719 as a seasonal subscription programme of operatic productions. His £1,000 contribution headed a distinguished list of subscribers, ‘Persons of Honour’ underwriting performances intended to reflect the highest available standards and production values in the world of international music theatre. Handel himself was commissioned to engage singers and orchestral musicians, and for the next twenty years the composition and presentation of opera would play a central role in his creative life.

Later ages tended to regard this extended stretch as a writer for the stage either as a kind of aesthetic wilderness in which Handel spent too long straying or as a drudgery from which he yearned to break free. Almost as soon as he died, in 1759, his operas—nearly forty of them in all—were forgotten, with the exception of a few arias in which generally innocuous English verses were substituted for their original Italian texts, more specific in expressing individual emotions such as triumph, rage, passionate yearning or erotic excitement. Only as of the late twentieth century has an astonishing revival of interest in these dramas, together with a viable approach to techniques of performance and staging for modern audiences, meant that such magnificent works as Ariodante, Rodelinda, Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano now enjoy a permanent place within the operatic repertoire throughout the world.

The beauties of line and craftsmanship we admire in Handel’s operatic arias, together with their dramatic integrity in registering the feelings and motivations of the characters who sing them, were not universally admired by the audiences of his own day. He had to contend with the caprices of taste and fashion in Georgian London, and he was not always rewarded with loyalty or appreciation from the singers (mostly Italian and hired by the season) for whom he wrote new music or else adapted earlier numbers to suit their particular talents. In 1733, a rival undertaking, nowadays sometimes referred to as ‘the Opera of the Nobility’ from its foundation by a coterie of aristocrats, challenged Handel’s ascendancy, introducing Londoners to newer operatic trends, and drawing both audiences and performers away from his theatre.

Handel’s own management style, what was more, did him no favours. Dictatorial with his orchestra and impatient with the moods and whims of his singers, he was concerned to promote his own creations when it came to the choice of operas to be presented and showed relatively little interest in the work of contemporary composers, except where this offered inspiration for his own.

Though Handel continued writing and presenting operas throughout the 1730s, alternative musical forms were attracting his interest at the same time. In 1732, in response to pirate productions of the sacred drama Esther and the pastoral serenata Acis and Galatea, both written some fifteen years earlier for an aristocratic patron, he mounted his own performances of them, discovering in the process an enthusiastic audience for English-language dramatic works. The following year he carried this a stage further with the oratorios Deborah and Athalia, based on scriptural episodes from the Old Testament—bold experiments in full-length musical drama using English words. By the end of the decade Handel had fully consolidated on this creative project, deepening the narrative element embodied by the interaction of individual soloists through elaborately developed interventions from the chorus, functioning as a commentator on events or as a vehicle for moral and spiritual truths. Two of Handel’s most epic explorations in this English oratorio territory he was steadily making his own came in 1738, with Saul, a work of monumental proportions featuring the largest orchestral forces he had so far employed, and, in the following year, Israel in Egypt. The descriptive sweep of the latter’s choruses remains unequalled by those written by any other composer for massed voices.

Whatever the professional zigzags of his career, Handel found time for friendship and socializing as an adoptive Londoner. He had become a naturalized Briton in 1727 but took care never to lose his German accent when speaking English or to abandon the essential cosmopolitanism of outlook and experience that gave him a perfect command of Italian and French and fuelled his polyglot musical style. He was an entertaining companion with a wide circle of acquaintances, which included aristocrats and members of the landed gentry, merchants, diplomats, affluent tradesmen and fellow musicians. They enjoyed his dry sense of humour, his gifts as a raconteur and his pleasure in fine pictures and good food. All of them were dedicated admirers of his music and kept each other informed about his latest works, whose rehearsals and first performances they were keen to attend, as well as purchasing the printed scores or having manuscript copies made for them.

Handel spent much of the 1720s and 1730s producing Italian operas for the London stage. This caricature of a performance of Handel’s opera Flavio (1723) shows the Italian castrato Gaetano Berenstadt on the far right, the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni in the centre and the Italian castrato Senesino on the left.


Such a powerful and compelling personality made its impact not just on this intimate circle, but on his patrons within the reigning Hanoverian dynasty, whose love of music guaranteed an enduring loyalty to the composer, strengthened by their shared German background.

King George I’s successor, crowned as George II in 1727 to the sound of four elegantly contrasted anthems commissioned from Handel, remained a devoted supporter, appointing him music master to the royal children. The new king’s consort, Queen Caroline, was equally enthusiastic, and it is hard not to see the magnificent elegy ‘The ways of Zion do mourn’, written for her funeral in 1737, as Handel’s personal tribute to this cultured, discerning and strong-willed woman. The piece is another of those works from the late 1730s in which we see the composer extending his range within the choral medium and developing a new style for potential use in the oratorios on which he would focus in his last creative decade. Fusing court solemnity with wistful meditation and the kind of learned allusion to German church music of past generations that would have appealed to Caroline, the funeral anthem fully deserves its description by one of her daughters as ‘ye finest cruel touching thing that ever was heard’.

Though he had not quite relinquished Italian opera as a core element in his career as a composer, there are plenty of indications, both in ‘The ways of Zion do mourn’ or the two oratorios Saul and Israel in Egypt written soon after it, that Handel was in search of new inspirations and other musical forms in which to stretch his talent. The autumn of 1739 witnessed the first performance of his setting of John Dryden’s ‘Ode on St Cecilia’s Day’, a hymn of praise to the power of music, which must have held its own significance for Handel during this crucial period. At the same time he was at work on the set of twelve concertos for strings published as his Op. 6, a superbly ambitious achievement in which he exploits the concerto medium with greater imagination and audacity than had been shown by any other Baroque composer. No sooner were these completed than in February 1740 Handel produced one of his most astoundingly original works for voices and orchestra, the setting of John Milton’s ‘L’Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’, two poems that contrast such opposites as day and night, country and city, solitariness and conviviality, to which he added a balancing final section entitled ‘Il Moderato’, written by Charles Jennens, librettist of Saul. The entire piece, richly pictorial in its beguiling evocation of the rural scene, demonstrates Handel’s consummate mastery of his musical resources, displaying a fund of inventiveness, which ought to have impressed his capricious London public somewhat more than it did at that particular moment.

Handel composes: a portrait by Philip Mercier dating from c. 1730, when Handel was in his mid-forties.


Even if, unlike most other musicians at this time, Handel did not rely mainly on regular employment from a princely patron or a religious institution, he was not free, correspondingly, of a need to anticipate the fluctuations of popular taste and to earn enough to ensure that his music was performed at the highest possible standard. The sheer pressure of work took its toll in the spring of 1737, with what a London newspaper reported as ‘a Paraletick Disorder’,1 a stroke, which temporarily paralysed his right hand, needing a session at the curative thermal springs of Aachen in Germany before he recovered. His Italian operas meanwhile met with limited success and in January 1741 the last of these, Deidamia, a romantic comedy based on a Greek myth, was withdrawn after three performances.

Among the group of friends and musical enthusiasts surrounding him, where Handel would go from here was not obvious. A letter from an anonymous ‘J. B.’ in the London Daily Post


  • "Delightful.... This richly illustrated book is like a lively performance of the piece itself.... Captures the essence of Handel's magic."—Wall Street Journal
  • "With its astute commentaries on the operas, this book makes a brilliantly lucid guide to Handel's evolving art."
    Independent (UK)
  • "Keates is an enthusiastic, serious and careful writer.... The author clearly knows what he is talking about, and illuminates what we thought we knew."
    Guardian (UK), Book of the Week
  • "However you like to hear your Messiah, you should enjoy it more for reading Keates's lucid guide...his analysis is taut and his narrative skillfully concise."
    Times (UK)
  • "One strength of Keates's book is the reminder that it is not only the music of Messiah that is extraordinary. So is the libretto, penned by Charles Jennens.... Keates's book does what it needs to do in awakening an urge to hear Handel's masterwork again, and now with a bit deeper understanding."—Christianity Today
  • The Deseret News
    "Keates illuminates the biography of this famous oratorio.... Messiah's life story is one of humble beginnings, soaring successes, controversial adaptations, and eventual redemption, not unlike the scriptures from whence it came."—The Deseret News

On Sale
Oct 24, 2017
Page Count
176 pages
Basic Books

Jonathan Keates

About the Author

Jonathan Keates is a distinguished and prize-winning biographer, novelist and travel writer, and author of the biographies Handel and Purcell. He is chairman of the Venice in Peril fund and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He won both the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Hawthornden Prize for his collection of short stories, Allegro Postillions (1983). Jonathan Keates is a regular contributor to the Observer (UK) and the Times Literary Supplement (UK) among a number of other publications.

Learn more about this author