Handel's Messiah is more than just a wonderful piece of music: it's a Christmas tradition in Britain. Ysenda Maxtone-Graham takes a look at the story behind it and picks some of her favourite places to hear it being sung.
Handel composed The Messiah – or just ‘Messiah’ to connoisseurs – in 24 days in Leicestershire during the summer of 1741. In the ensuing 275 years, its power to stir and inspire is entirely undiminished.
The composer was staying with the landowner Charles Jennens, who had written the libretto, a daringly experimental amalgam of biblical writing with a bold sweep of narrative from the early prophets onwards: a meditation on Our Lord as Messiah in Christian thought and belief.
Handel composed the music between August 22 and September 14 in a rush of inspiration. ‘Whether I was in my body or out of my body as I wrote it, I know not. God knows,’ he said afterwards. In the facsimile of the manuscript you can see his inky smudges and crossings out and feel his feverish urgency as he poured his thoughts onto the page. It’s with this sense of inspiration and freshness, say today’s leading conductors, that we should sing it, every time.
The piece has taken its place as the cornerstone of British music in the hearts of millions. Not only have we listened to it on recordings and in concerts, many of us have sung it, whether at school or in our choral society. It’s deliciously singable: tricky, but not absurdly hard, and full of spine-tingling moments.
The tradition of annual performances at Christmas is deeply ingrained in the British psyche, dating back to the annual fundraising Festival of Sons of the Clergy started in Westminster Abbey in the late 1700s. Here are nine of the finest places to go and enjoy this wonderful festive spectacle.
December 15 – Royal Festival Hall
Ccandle-lit performance by the City of London Choir and the Mozart Festival Orchestra, 7.30pm.
December 16 – Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford
With the Cathedral Singers and Oxfordshire Youth Baroque Strings (Oxy-baroxy), 7.30pm
December 16 – St James’s Church, Piccadilly
With the Six Centuries Chamber Choir and Linden Baroque, 7pm.
December 19 – The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh
With the Dunedin Consort, 7pm.
December 19 – Royal Albert Hall
Including Goldsmiths Choral Union, 7.30pm
December 19–20 – Barbican Centre, London
With the Academy of Ancient Music, 7pm.
December 20 – Huddersfield Town Hall
With Huddersfield Choral Society and Royal Northern Sinfonia, 7.15pm.
December 23 – Cheltenham Town Hall
With the Cheltenham Bach Choir and Regency Sinfonia, 7.30pm.
December 23 – Norwich Cathedral
With Norwich Cathedral Chamber Choir and Norwich Baroque, 7.30pm.