George F. Handel—Messiah

Messiah 2

George F. Handel. Messiah. London: Printed by Messers. Randall & Abell, ca. 1767. pp. 24-25.

Messiah 3

Lilly Library M2000.H135 M58

            Handel’s oratorio Messiah is probably the most famous work in this exhibit, with the “Hallelujah Chorus” being one of the most visible Baroque excerpts in popular culture. The work focuses on the figure of Jesus. Pulling material from many sections of the Bible, the libretto starts with prophecy about Jesus and progresses through the New Testament, including sections about the Passion and its impact. Messiah premiered in Dublin in 1742.

            The excerpt on display shows a portion of the chorus “And He shall purify the sons of Levi” from the oratorio's first part. This segment draws its text from Malachi 3:3. It promises a time when Israel’s priesthood will again be pure, looking ahead to when righteousness will be established. Such a promise would have been especially comforting when considering the recent captivity represented in Nabucco. While the text here is optimistic, the gravity of the subject matter comes forward through the chorus’s minor key: though better days are ahead, Israel is as yet not purified. Handel’s focus on purification in this movement is further emphasized through his treatment of “purify” in the text. He elongates this word through long strings of notes and overlapping vocal lines. The score used here is from the Lilly Library’s holdings. It is the first state of the first printed edition, published in 1767.