12 Days of Christmas Songs (#3) – Handel’s Messiah

Merry Christmas! For today’s post, I thought the most appropriate “song” might be Messiah, the most significant musical work ever composed about the life of Christ within the context of Biblical Old Testament prophecies about his birth and Gospels about his life, death, and resurrection.

Final bars of the “Hallelujah” chorus, from the original 1741 score (via Wikipedia, public domain)

The best overall version of Handel’s Messiah that I’ve found online—that is, the version I most prefer 🙂 —is the London Symphony Orchestra’s performance. The almost ludicrously ornamental vocal and instrumental acrobatics are characteristic of the Italian opera that was extremely popular in 18th-century London. And Handel was one of the most famous composers of Italian opera. Although born in Germany, he traveled to Italy in his early twenties and began writing opera there. A few years later Handel emigrated to London, shortly before his employer, the German prince George also emigrated to become King George I of Great Britain and Ireland.

Obviously the most appropriate Messiah chorus for today would be “For Unto Us a Child Is Born.” Here is the London Symphony Orchestra’s “For Unto Us a Child Is Born.”

And here is the more famous “Hallelujah” chorus. As the story goes, Handel was overcome by emotion and in tears when he finished writing this piece, exclaiming to a visitor, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.”

Below is my favorite Messiah chorus, “And He Shall Purify the Sons of Levi.” I’m including the video here, just because 🙂

And finally—ironically, I guess, to put at the end of this post—here is Messiah‘s “Overture.” I had to search YouTube to find a performance that best fits my “ideal”—not too ponderously slow, not too fast, and with just the right amount of embellishment in terms of trilled notes (rather than plain and unornamented, because remember this is basically 18th-century Italian opera). The version below, by the City of Preston Orchestra in the United Kingdom, gets it right.

When I close my eyes and listen to this “Overture” through headphones, I truly feel what Handel described: that I can see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.

 

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
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5 Responses to 12 Days of Christmas Songs (#3) – Handel’s Messiah

  1. Emily J. says:

    I love this post! My daughter and I went to a Messiah sing-along last Sunday and while the music was amateurish, it was still beautiful. It also made me realize that there is so much of this great musical work I need to learn more thoroughly. Thanks for recommending these performances!

    • What a fun thing to do with your daughter! I bought a Messiah score a long time ago and love looking at the music as written while listening. The sad thing is, my voice has gotten lower in the last fifteen years and some of the highest notes in the “Hallelujah” chorus are a real stretch for me now. But I’ve also been a soprano for so long that switching to alto just wouldn’t feel like singing the “real” music. So I’ll just keep straining to hit those high notes 😄

  2. Sally Cissna says:

    I’m an alto and been one my whole life…I can hit some of the high notes, but with an untrained voice, I’ll stick with making the sopranos sound good. LOL. Learning the alto part of the Hallelujah Chorus in college was a major accomplishment…there are some syncopated parts that are so fun and really do add so much to the overall whole. Love it.

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