Unto Us a Hit Is Born

Why Handel’s Messiah is a holiday soundtrack for the ages.

Death and love notwithstanding, religion is the classical composer’s bread and butter. So, it should come as no surprise that the classical canon includes piles and piles of Christmas soundtracks. But despite the abundance—think of Bach’s Christmas Cantatas and Oratorio, Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, and music by Bruckner, Couperin, Durufle, Gabrieli, Palestrina, Rameau, Saint-Saëns, Vivaldi, and, who could forget, Tchaikovsky—one classical work is heard more than any other on radio stations and in concert halls the world over.

Handel’s Messiah has been a popular hit since it was penned in London some 260 years ago. It’s powerful, earthy, and extreme—the perfect kind of work to offer solace and celebration on the cusp of the holiday season. But lots of other Christmastime works convey similar comfort and joy. What is it about Messiah that puts  it on concert schedules every year?

Messiah is an oratorio, an unstaged dramatic choral work written for orchestra and solo voices. And like any oratorio, its most important element is the text. Handel—it’s pronounced “Hand”+ “ull,” like the part of the frying pan you hold—set his music to a biblically inspired libretto written in English by Charles Jennens. This was an incredibly lucky choice: Who knew in 1741 that English was to become the dominant language of the world? (Not the introspective J.S. Bach, for one: He wrote his most powerful oratorios and liturgical choral works in Latin or German.)

Size and scope is also vital to Messiah’s success; Handel’s are grandiose and far-reaching. In contrast, Bach wrote his cantatas, passions, and Christmas Oratorio with a style indicative of the kind of man he was: His harmonies are more chromatic (they blur the home key by moving up and down by half-step); his melodic lines are longer and more intricate than Handel’s (Click here to listen the opening fugue from Messiah’s Overture), requiring a small, more-skilled choir and orchestra to sing and play them; and he wrote them all to be performed in a podunk Leipzig church, not a big-city theater.

Handel also treats his singers like singers, whereas Bach treats his singers like instruments, writing for them difficult leaps, suspensions, and harmonies. Handel’s vocal lines are comfortably written—the term is “in range”—for the voice type to which they are assigned. Furthermore, Handel’s many instrumental lines are written straighter than Bach’s, which indulge in high-stakes contrapuntal games. The result is that Handel’s music sounds better with more singers singing louder, contrary to Bach’s, which needs fewer singers and an intimate concert space. And Handel, lest we forget, wrote his music for money—to be a star in a city chock-full of compositional luminaries. Bach wrote his music for a church—for God, and some would say himself: He wasn’t concerned with what made good entertainment.

Another reason for Messiah’s mass appeal is that it’s composed of many interchangeable movements, or short vocal pieces, introduced by “recitatives”: spoken text above simple harmonic accompaniment. In fact, nearly every performance of the work customizes it for the talents of the group and the interests of the audience. Just like the people who attend a high-school performance of Messiah probably won’t want to hear the whole thing (give them the Greatest Hits version), so might the audience at a Gothic New York church want to hear the authentic, full version that Handel signed off on later in life.

But the most compelling reason Messiah reaches as many people as it does is its lucid symbolism. Handel’s extroverted intentions, narrative and musical, are superobvious. He’s the Andrew Lloyd Weber of 18th-century London. Listen to the first tenor’s piece in the work, “Comfort Ye.” Pillows of sound, sewed together by strings, lay the groundwork for the solo line: a three-note statement that floats down as if it’s laying itself to rest. Sung with patience and peace, “Comfort Ye” feels like a warm blanket. But then, just when you think you’ve ensconced yourself in warmth, the word “iniquity“ appears in the text, sung on a dissonant non-chord tone. You’re dismayed until the libretto proceeds, the “iniquity” is “pardoned,” and everything comes together in a gentle, major-key cadence. 

It’s also pretty hard to stay aloof when Handel wants you to feel scared. Take Messiah’s “For behold, darkness shall cover the Earth”: a minor-key movement that begins with slurred, two-note motifs (the first note of the pair weighted), which climb the scale in a chromatic manner as if there’s something frightening ahead. The descending melodic figure is sung by the lowest possible male voice: a bass. Until, of course, the string accompaniment modulates into a major mode, and crescendos increase in fortitude to signify the brightness of God below the phrase“But the Lord shall rise around me.”

Elation is sprinkled throughout Messiah like white-gold confetti. Pleasure your ear with the movement “Rejoice Greatly“: Sung by opera’s Glenda-the-Good-Witch, the soprano, this major-key tune is set to a zippy tempo; composed of short, sweet notes-droplets; ornamented with frolicking trills; driven by fast runs up and down the scale; and infused with a light, airy spirit. In fact, note the way the word “Rejoice” is set. “Re” is always at a lower pitch than “joice,” so that each mention of the concept includes an optimistically dramatic leap up the musical staff.

But Messiah’s most colorful use of text-painting appears in “All We Like Sheep.” Here, the text of the title, followed by the phrase “have gone astray” is set with simple humor. “All We Like Sheep” is sung declamatory-style—that is, all at once, in unison just like, well, the way sheep behave. Then “have gone astray” is symbolized by the tune’s rupture into two distinct camps: those who sing up the musical scale and those who sing down it. The beauty of this concept is that the two camps sing the phrase at once, creating a textbook example of what’s called “contrary motion.” Picture it on the piano: your right hand moving right while your left hand moves left. At the end, are your hands together? Or are they “astray”?

All of these little tricks are what make Messiah so effective. But what’s great about the work is that they’re simple enough to work for the average listener without this explanation. They’re smart, but accessible. So, by the time the “Hallelujah” chorus rolls around, you’re ready to belt out a strong tune and give thanks.