Georg Friedrich Händel, “But who may abide”, Messiah

Soprano: Emma Kirkby
Conductor: Christopher Hogwood
Academy of Ancient Music, Westminster Abbey

Notwithstanding its subject and text, Messiah is not, in the accepted sense, a sacred work. Jennens himself called it simply «a fine Entertainment», and Handel only ever performed it in a consecrated building when he mounted his annual charity concerts in the chapel of the Foundling Hospital. This, however, did not prevent its ultimate sanctification by an adoring public convinced that by attending a performance of the work they were themselves participating in an act of worship. In Bristol in 1758 the young J. Wesley heard Messiah on one of the rare occasions when it was performed in church and commented ironically that he doubted «if that congregation was ever so serious at a sermon as they were during this performance». Yet there is absolutely no evidence at all that Handel himself ever intended an evangelical purpose. Ultimately, Handel’s purpose was to delight and charm his listeners; as a writer in the Dublin Journal wrote after the first performance: «Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crowded audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear».

  •  “Handel’s Messiah”, Simon Heighes