The Maestro’s Corner: Handel’s Messiah

“Soli Deo Gloria”

Handel - Messiah - by London Philharmonic, full


Emma San Martin, Layout Editor

The holiday season is upon us, and, with the Christmas vacation fast approaching, there is no better piece of music to examine than Handel’s masterpiece, the oratorio Messiah.  Undoubtedly the most famous oratorio in the classical repertoire, Messiah is also probably the most widely-known classical choral work, known especially for its magnificent “Hallelujah Chorus”.  In fact, much of Messiah has been overshadowed by the “Hallelujah Chorus,” leaving its other movements widely unknown.  However, this is no reason for these other sections not to be celebrated; many of them are exquisite in their refinement and delicacy (see video at 1:11:36).  Messiah is a long reflection on the nature of Christ and his role as the savior; originally written for Easter, this piece has in recent centuries come to be more closely associated with the Christmas season.

In its essence, Messiah consists of several passages from the King James Bible (and a number of psalms from the Book of Common Prayer) set to music.  In the music of Messiah we see a strong operatic influence.  In his day, Handel was the most popular composer of operas in England, and many of his works were famous in Europe as well.  Handel knew what his public liked, and he tweaked his style accordingly. Besides this, many of the singers that Handel employed in his operas could easily sing in the Messiah, making it easier to stage.  So, in this manner, Messiah was a work for the people.  It was written in a popular style, and for popular singers.

However, there is another layer to Messiah, one that became evident upon the examination of Handel’s original score.  Handel wrote the entire score in just twenty-four days.  Scribbled at the end are three letters:  S.D.G.  This is an acronym for the Latin phrase Soli Deo Gloria: “To God alone the glory.”  This, paired with the astonishing speed at which the oratorio was composed, led some of Handel’s contemporaries to believe that he had written it under a burst of divine inspiration.  Whether Handel was writing under the influence of the Holy Spirit remains unclear, but one thing remains certain: Handel was writing for his religion.  Of course, he was influenced by worldly concerns, but the inscription at the end is an eloquent statement of resignation.  Handel acknowledges the superior power of his God, and dedicates his labor to the glory of Heaven.

Messiah is fast-paced and exciting in some places, and slowly meditative in others.  In this oratorio, we see Handel at his best: a master of harmony and of melodic permutation, skillfully weaving the voices and instruments into one living sound.


2016 will see the 275th anniversary of the Messiah’s composition.