George Frideric Handel: Sinfony to Messiah

Messiah Part I


George Frideric Handel’s Messiah has remained one of the composer’s most beloved works. Incredibly, Handel completed this 260-page oratorio in just 24 days during the summer of 1741. The scriptural text was compiled by Charles Jennens, with the source being the King James Bible. The first performance of Messiah was on 13th April 1742, to celebrate Easter. 

Initially the oratorio garnered a lukewarm reception from audiences, however the work began to gain popularity over some years, with it now being the go-to work to perform during the Easter period. During this new Messiah exploration on Classicalexburns, blogs will be posted regularly to cover all of the pieces involved in making up this much-loved oratorio. 


The Music

The Sinfony, opens the whole oratorio and is heard at the beginning of Part I. The Sinfony is one of only two sections in Part I that are purely instrumental. During the time that the Messiah was composed, composers would use the Italian word Sinfony to signify a sort of Overture to a work. In newer editions of the work this opening movement is called ‘Overture to Messiah’. 

Handel writes this opening work as a French Overture, which has two elements – a slow opening and a fugue. Composed for two oboes and strings, the piece is set in the solemn key of E minor. The strings take the lead on the fugue theme, which is initiated by the violins. The fugue theme is threaded throughout the Messiah, and most famously returns in the final Amen of the oratorio. 

The strings unite to create a powerful wall of sound that leads into the quicker fugue passages. Handel’s use of cross-rhythms and and ornaments create flourishes of sound between the oboes and strings. The jubilant character of the fugue outweighs the darker undertones of the opening. The Sinfony begins to pull back before the orchestra unite to resolve back on the root chord of the key of E minor. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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