Handel’s Messiah: Fact or Fiction?

By Sally Bradford
With thanks to Teresa Neff

Few masterworks of Baroque music can rival Handel’s Messiah for its eternal popularity. Many of us are familiar with Messiah, but some may have heard myths and legends about this great work. How many of these questions are you able to answer correctly?

1. Did Handel write Messiah intending it to become the great musical ode to Christmas?

False. Messiah was originally conceived as a work for Easter, and its world premiere was given at Lent.

2. Was the world premiere of Messiah given in London?

False. Though Handel later gave regular performances of Messiah for London’s Foundling Hospital, the oratorio was actually first performed in Dublin, at the Music Hall on Fishamble Street, on April 13, 1742.

3. Was the U.S. premiere of the complete Messiah performed in Boston?

True. The U.S. premiere of the complete Messiah was performed by the Handel and Haydn Society on Christmas Day in 1818 in Boston.

4. Did Handel write both the words and the music for Messiah?

False. Charles Jennens wrote the libretto, or text, comprising passages from the Bible.

5. Did it really take Handel 24 days to write Messiah?

True. Handel actually penned Messiah in a breathtakingly swift 24 days.

6. Did the first performance of Messiah feature 50 musicians on stage?

True. The premiere of Messiah featured about 50 musicians, evenly divided between members of the chorus and orchestra. This is why “historically informed performances” approximate this size ensemble.

7. Did Wolfgang Amadè Mozart arrange an orchestration for Messiah?

True. There are various arrangements, and Mozart wrote one of them in the 18th century.

8. Was the “Hallelujah” Chorus performed in celebration of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863?

True. The Handel and Haydn Society performed the “Hallelujah” Chorus at the Grand Jubilee Concert on New Year’s Day 1863 in Boston, in celebration of the news of Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation.

9. Did the first nationally televised broadcast of Messiah happen in 1963?

True. The Handel and Haydn Society performed in the first nationally televised broadcast of Messiah In December 1963 for National Educational Television, WGBH.

10. Do audiences have to stand for the “Hallelujah” Chorus?

False. There is a long-standing myth that at one of the first performances in London in 1743, King George II was touched by the “Hallelujah” Chorus and he rose to his feet with the crowd following. It’s hard to document the truth of this legend, since the first record was written in 1780, almost 40 years later. Audiences today should decide for themselves—any way an audience member responds to the monumental music of the “Hallelujah” Chorus is just right!

The behind the scenes stories are fascinating, but the dynamic music of Handel’s Messiah accounts for its acclaim. We invite you to enjoy streaming versions of this great work – including the complete performance of Messiah, and a very special Messiah for Our Time produced in 2020.

Our next performance of Handel's Messiah is coming this November! Learn more and join us for this Boston tradition.