Thursday, April 24, 2014

Researching Family History: Handel's oratorio 'Messiah' was a gift for our ancestors

By Russell Bangerter, For the Deseret News

Published: Wed, Dec. 18 5:00 a.m. MST

 Charles Jennens transcribed the scriptures and inspired Handel to compose the music for \

Charles Jennens transcribed the scriptures and inspired Handel to compose the music for "The Messiah."


The first performance of "The Messiah” in 1742 resulted in the release of 142 prisoners from debtor's prison. I wonder if we had ancestors who were the prisoners or listeners at the great concert?

Immersed in debt, George Frederick Handel was going to debtor's prison until he came forth with the music of "The Messiah." Having the kind heart he did, he donated the proceeds to certain charitable organizations. There seems no list or accounting for who the prisoners were.

Let us discover more of the facts that surround the making and presentation of the greatest oratorio ever composed.

Handel penned the complete score in 24 days and never left home. The few times he left his room were rare and he ate very little food. With tears flowing down his cheeks, he said in this account on, “I did think I did see all eaven before me, and the great God himself." Later, when Handel tried to describe his experience, he quoted the writings of Paul the apostle, "Whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote it, I know not."

A close friend of Handel, Charles Jennens (1700-1773), a literary scholar and an editor of the plays of Shakespeare, selected the texts from the King James version of the Bible, in the Old Testament to New Testament. By so doing, Jennens covered the period of ancient prophecies about the birth of the Savior to his crucifixion, Resurrection, the Second Coming and Day of Judgment.

With 16 singers and 40 instruments and players, the first performance took place in Dublin, Ireland, on April 13, 1742. It was the following year that it debuted in London with King George II.

In 1743, tradition tells us that at the London performance, the king stood when the choir sang, “The kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ.” All of the king's subjects present followed the example set by the king to stand during the Hallelujah Chorus.

The oratorio was not intended for Christmas, but for Easter, according to the History Channel's website. Since then, it has become traditional to Christmas more than Easter. Interestingly enough, it was in a secular concert hall in London that it made its début.

We have heard the entire rendition of the music of "The Messiah" many times before. In some cases, some have sung in the sing-in-choirs and other choirs in various communities around Christmastime.

It is miraculous that the power of the music by Handel and sublime words penned by Jennens from the scriptures went further than freeing the 142 prisoners. It also fed the poor and comforted the sick.

It is profound that such a piece of music is as powerful after 271 years as when it had its beginnings. This is a great gift from the "Great God," as Handel put it. The oratorio opened the way for deliverance from mortal prisons for those 142 prisioners, and it also helped teach about the Savior and his life and teachings, which would help free our ancestors in the life to come. It is the Atonement of Jesus Christ which has enabled us and our ancestors freedom from the various prisons.

With the great deliverance in mortality coming from what is now known as "The Messiah," imagine how much more need have we to set our own ancestors free from their prison in the spirit world by finding their names and doing their temple work. Next to the suffering the Savior underwent in Gethsemane and on the cross, the rescue of our ancestors is the greatest rescue effort ever known to humanity.

These things are that … "the prisoner may go free." (Doctrine and Covenants 128:24) and be reunited with their family for eternity.

Genealogy graduate Russell Bangerter is president of Ancestral Connections Inc. at He is a professional genealogist, author and speaker and adviser to Treasured Souls to Keep, at

A history of George Frideric Handel's 'Messiah'

1. caf
Bountiful, UT,
Dec. 18, 2013

Thank you for including this wonderful piece in the news!

2. Hans in California
Valencia, CA,
Dec. 18, 2013

OK, first of all, the title of this oratorio is "Messiah", not "The Messiah" despite what is printed on the G. Schirmer musical score. Secondly, Handel had previously composed about one third of the music and used it in other instrumental music, a not uncommon practice of the 18th century. Thirdly, there is no contemporary evidence that King George II was even at the London premiere of "Messiah". Fourth, the conductor Robert Shaw despised the tradition of standing for the "Hallelujah Chorus" and "maintained that it was George II’s bladder, not his soul, that caused him to rise with such alacrity, the king having lost track of when intermission started."
Sorry to burst some bubbles but I am a retired musicologist and lectured on Handel at several universities.

3. John Wilson
Idaho Falls, 00,
Dec. 18, 2013

I have read in a few places that Handel referred to this piece as "Messiah", not "The Messiah", out of respect or deference to the Savior. Can anyone confirm or refute this?

4. cjb
Bountiful, UT,
Dec. 18, 2013

If there is a greater piece of music than Handel's Messiah I am hard pressed to think of it.

5. Hans in California
Valencia, CA,
Dec. 18, 2013

The title page of Handel's autograph score reads "Messiah an Oratorio".

Among the oratorios that Handel composed during his mature period in London "Saul" and "Israel in Egypt", both from 1730, are generally ranked at the top of the list.

As for greater pieces than "Messiah", my personal favorites are Beethoven's 9th Symphony and Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection", particularly the final movement.