A musical rite of the holiday season, George Frideric Handel’s Messiah is one of the best-loved sacred compositions ever written. First performed at Dublin’s Musick Hall in 1742, the Baroque-era oratorio is today a fixture of the Christmas season and the most frequently performed choral work in the world. Highly innovative in its conception, there are numerous ironies associated with the work. In Handel’s time, oratorios were intended to be sacred dramas with a plot and characters in imitation of Italian opera, but the text of Messiah is nothing more than a simple recitation of Bible verses carefully selected by English clergyman Charles Jennens. His goal: to summarize the life of Jesus Christ and the prophecy of his birth. Handel later worked from morning until night, composing the music in an astonishing three to four weeks. The combination of Messiah’s exceptionally beautiful music and a compelling text that is easy for English speakers to understand, is what continues to draw and awe listeners some 250-plus years after the composer’s death.
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Daniel Freeman, Ph.D., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has taught courses in music history at the University of Minnesota, the Smithsonian Institution, and other universities throughout the world. Considered the world’s leading historian in the field of 18th-century Czech music, Freeman is both a musicologist and pianist. His research has included studies on 18th-century keyboard music, baroque opera, the musical culture of 18th-century Bohemia, and the music of composers Bach, Mozart, and Vivaldi. His most recent book is Mozart in Prague (Bearclaw Publishers, 2013).
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