Concert Notes

Handel’s Messiah

Notes by TŌN bassoonist Philip McNaughton

Traditionally performed at Christmas time, George Frideric Handel’s Messiah is arguably one of the most performed and celebrated works of the orchestral repertoire. Not quite a full-staged opera, this oratorio features soloists, four-part chorus, and an orchestra of paired trumpets, two oboes, first and second violins, viola, basso continuo, and timpani.

Finished in 1741, Messiah is in three parts and depicts the life of Jesus. Part I is the birth and miracle of Jesus, Part II is the Passion and Jesus’ death (famously ending with the Hallelujah Chorus), and Part III is Jesus glorified in Heaven. All three parts are made up of scenes which consist of solo arias, recitatives, instrumental movements, and choruses.

This work contains many famous arias and choruses that can stand on their own as important works of the classical canon, but probably none are as notable as the end of the Second Part, the Hallelujah Chorus. And with that chorus comes many traditions: sing-along performances, its affiliation with the holiday season, and its use in television and popular culture. One of the most well-known practices—and one with a rather curious origin—is the audience standing upon hearing the Hallelujah Chorus. It is said that at the work’s London premiere in 1743, the King of England, George II, was present, and when he heard the Hallelujah Chorus he rose to his feet in excitement. According to the custom of the time, if the king stood, so did you. The audience rose to their feet to join their king. Though this is thought to be the origin of the tradition, there is very little evidence as to why the king stood up or to even prove he was at the performance. There are even rumors that the king stood to make his way to the bathroom, and all his subjects just followed suit. Whatever the origin of the tradition is, it has held up over hundreds of years and added to the tradition of Handel’s Messiah.