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Program Notes: Handel's Messiah (December 2-4, 2022)

Updated: Dec 1, 2022


December 2-4, 2022

Key’mon Murrah, countertenor

Jonathon Adams, baritone

Patrick Dupré Quigley, guest director

George Frideric Handel

Messiah (1741)



Comfort ye, comfort ye my people

Ev’ry valley shall be exalted

And the glory, the glory of the Lord

Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of Hosts

But who may abide the day of His coming

And He shall purify

Behold, a virgin shall conceive

O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion

For behold, darkness shall cover the earth

The people that walked in darkness

For unto us a Child is born


There were shepherds abiding in the field

And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them

And the angel said unto them

And suddenly there was with the angel

Glory to God in the highest

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion

Then shall the eyes of the blind be open’d

He shall feed His flock like a shepherd

His yoke is easy, His burthen is light



Behold the Lamb of God

He was despised

Surely, He hath borne our griefs and carried

our sorrows

And with His stripes we are healed

All we like sheep have gone astray

All they that see Him, laugh Him to scorn

He trusted in God

Thy rebuke hath broken His heart

Behold, and see if there be any sorrow

He was cut off out of the land of the living

But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell

The Lord gave the word

How beautiful are the feet of Him/them

Why do the nations so furiously rage together

Let us break their bonds asunder

He that dwelleth in heaven

Though shalt break them with a rod of iron



I know that my Redeemer liveth

Since by man came death

Behold, I tell you a mystery

The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall

be rais’d

If God be for us who can be against

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain


Program Notes

by Tim Munro

George Frideric Handel
George Frideric Handel


George Frideric Handel

Born February 23, 1685, Halle, Germany

Died April 14, 1759, London, England

A leap into the unknown

Handel was at a crossroads. He was the most fashionable composer of London’s most fashionable genre, Italian opera. He was lauded, feted, taken into the homes of the rich and famous.

But, thirty years after Handel had arrived in London, the city’s opera-madness was fading. This situation was perilous for Handel, a freelance composer. He had bills to pay, and opera was no longer paying them.

Then, a spark. Around this time, Handel dusted off two works in a genre unknown in London. These “oratorios” looked and sounded like operas, but told religious stories. He performed them in London to enthusiastic acclaim. Perhaps, thought Handel, this “new” genre would show the way forward.

Sacred opera

Oratorio was born at almost the same time as opera, around 1600. It grew out of a religious order that prized ecstatic experience, and oratorio’s blend of music and sacred texts conjured the state of rapture they sought.

The genre had grown and changed as it spread across Europe. And Handel, sniffing the air for new success, brought it to London.

Messiah was composed in just three weeks. Handel often wrote at this speed, in the tiny breathing space between opera seasons. Three weeks: barely enough time for the physical act of composition, let alone time to imbue the notes with life and love.

Handel molded the oratorio form in his image: nothing should stop the momentum of his storytelling; virtuosity for its own sake was forbidden; variety in form, shape, sound, and character was crucial; and the chorus became central.


Messiah is missing an important element: its central hero.

Handel’s oratorios typically give singing roles to their main characters. In Saul and Belshazzar, written around the time of Messiah, Saul and Belshazzar tell of their dizzying highs and terrifying falls.

But in Messiah our hero never speaks or sings. Jesus is born without mention of his mother or any wise men. Jesus’ specific good works don’t appear, and the disciples are entirely absent. And Jesus dies, but there is no Pilate, no real mention of a crucifixion.

The text

Charles Jennens, librettist of the Messiah, was something of a mystic. He believed in the transcendental divinity of Christ, and in an increasingly rationalist society this marked him as an outsider.

He called this text for Messiah “a meditation of our Lord.” On the title page, Jennens quotes one of Paul’s epistles, celebrating “the Mystery of Godliness.” Jennens’s central character is Jesus as idea, as “mystery,” rather than Jesus as flesh- and-blood human.

The music

Handel took Jennens’s non-narrative texts and made concrete, human drama. First, Handel keeps the “operatic” drama moving, connecting isolated movements into long scenes. But he varies the pacing, stopping the action for the calm of the “Pastoral Symphony,” for the despair of “He was despised.”

Second, Handel’s word-painting is everywhere here, from the flickering of vocal flames in “And He shall purify,” to the misty strings of “For behold,” and the cackling laughter of “All they that see Him.”

Finally, Handel helps this abstract text speak to audiences of all times and places. Jennens wrote for an audience that knew its Bible, knew what would unfold, knew how it would end. But Handel’s gripping and passionate music drags us into the emotion of his Messiah.

In recitatives, choruses, and arias, it is us lowly humans who worry, hope, predict, lament, and celebrate. Maybe we are thinking of Jesus, but maybe we are thinking of the people we love, the places we live, the good that we want to do.

Messiah did not connect with contemporary audiences. They may have found it blasphemous, been put off by the strangeness of its libretto. It would take ten years for kindling to catch, and when it did, it caught fire, blazing around the globe, across cultures, across centuries.

First performance: April 13, 1742, in Dublin, Ireland, the composer conducting

First SLSO performance: December 6, 1881, Joseph Otten conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: December 9, 2018, Matthew Halls conducting

Instrumentation: soprano, countertenor (originally alto), tenor, baritone, chorus, 2 oboes, bassoon, 2 trumpets, timpani, harpsichord, portative organ, strings

Approximate duration: 2 hours


Tim Munro served as the SLSO’s Creative Partner from 2018-2022. In 2023, he becomes Associate Professor of Music at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University in Australia.

Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.


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