‘Hallelujah’! A few facts about Handel’s ‘Messiah’

When December rolls around, expect to hear Handel's Messiah emanating from all quarters: elevators, malls and if you're fortunate, live in concert.

Under Nicholas McGegan, a revered Handel specialist, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus will perform the work over four dates Dec. 16-19, continuing a long-established yuletide tradition. So popular has the work become over time that the Messiah has been called “the one great work that not only embodies a religion but is a religion itself.”

But did you know? 

An oratorio for all seasons? Though the Messiah is now a yuletide staple, Handel conceived the work as an Easter offering, and it was first performed during Lent. The work's first third deals with the birth of Jesus. The second act covers the death of Jesus and the third on his resurrection.

The Victorians moved it to Christmas, to revive interest in that then-neglected holiday. By the late 19th century, the Messiah had became regularly programmed during December, especially in the United States. British conductor Laurence Cummings, in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, speculates that the yuletide performance custom may have been born from necessity: "There is so much fine Easter music — Bach's St. Matthew Passion, for instance — and so little great sacral music written for Christmas." 

A standing tradition: Audience members usually rise to their feet when the famous "Hallelujah" chorus begins. Supposedly King George II was so moved during the London premiere of the Messiah that he stood and then everyone else in the theater followed so as not to offend him. 

Fast and furious: In a burst of creativity, Handel wrote the three-hour work in just 18 or so days during the summer of 1741. That pace was helped along by his recycling of earlier works. The choruses "And He Shall Purify," "For Unto Us a Child Is Born" and "His Yoke Is Easy" came from Italian love arias that Handel had composed two decades before. 

A bit of blasphemy: That a religious work would be performed in a theater and not a church scandalized proper London. Many believed that the work was “too exalted to be performed in a theater, particularly by secular singers.” Eventually, when Handel announced that he would give all the proceedings from the Messiah to charity, did the controversy die down.

His mighty thunder: No less than Ludwig van Beethoven, citing the Messiah, called Handel the "greatest composer who ever lived. ... I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb.” And Mozart declared himself "to be humble in the face of Handel's genius. ... Handel knows better than any of us what will make an effect. When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt."