Handel’s Messiah has been shown to be a great work from the moment it was premiered. Back then, the shows were filled with people, and nearly everyone that attended, from bishops to headmasters, recognized The Messiah as the masterpiece that it was.
While all this positive feedback might have indicated Handel’s great success with this piece, it is unlikely that Handel or anyone at that time could have predicted the piece becoming the timeless classic it is today. How could Handel truly have known that The Messiah would be performed in churches, orchestras, and choirs at Christmas-time and in performances all around the world, hundreds of years into the future?
As a music student, my colleagues and I were tasked with studying the premiere of this piece, reading primary source documents from the time of the premiere in combination with the score of the piece to try and make sense of the events that occurred leading up to the piece’s first performance. As one might expect when piecing together documents to attempt to view the whole picture of an event, learning about the premiere prompted a lot of questions. One of these questions was one of particular importance to the topic of today’s post: how did The Messiah grow to become the immensely significant piece that it is today?
Attempting to find the answer to this question, I decided to look into different historical newspapers that might be able to help with gauging how this piece was perceived over time. After doing some searching, I came across a newspaper article from the New York Daily Times from December 27, 1853. This article, titled “Musical”, detailed a performance of the Messiah from the New York Sacred Harmonic Society.
From what I could gather from this article, though the majority of it seemed to be passive aggressive comments toward the Metropolitan Hall’s Committee of Management for not solidifying decent seats for the press, this review found this performance seemed to be a huge success. It seems that the author of this article expected the show to be grand and hugely successful, and this was confirmed in the shear amount of people that attended the performance. All of the performers (all 300+ of them!) seemed to do an outstanding job, with the exception of the performer of the obligato (who is, I assume from the article, the trumpet player). According to the author, it appears that they quickly learned just how difficult their part actually was during the heat of their performance instead of in a practice space.
This article, interestingly enough, speaks very little on the actual piece itself, in favor of speaking on the actual performance that they witnessed. So while this does not fully answer my proposed question of how this piece became so immensely popular and influential today, it does bring up another interesting variable: the role that the musicians play in determining a piece’s success.
Thinking back to the premiere, Handel’s success with the Messiah likely would not have been possible if it were not for the work of the musicians who performed it. The musicians are the printers of the composer’s vision; they take the notes on the composer’s score and make it a tangible experience. So, perhaps this is an element of the answer to the question of how The Messiah gained such success. A follow up question to this might be: To how much of an extent does the role of the musician play in determining the success of a work? How much of a role did the musicians in the premiere of Handel’s Messiah play in helping it gain the traction and momentum it has to continue to be played and studied today?
While these are big questions to come from a simple newspaper article, I think they are important questions to ask, especially when considering influential works like this. The Messiah is and will continue to be a classic piece of music, and a hugely impactful one, at that. By reflecting on how this particular piece became so prevalent and impactful, we begin to develop theories that can be applied to other pieces and premieres, prompting more questions and more answers as we try to learn all we can about music and how it makes it mark on the world.