George Frideric Handel: But Who May Abide

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 Lyrics


But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He

Appeareth? For He is like a refiner’s fire.

 (Malachi 3:2)


The Music

The prophecy from the last recitative (Thus Saith the Lord), follows on into But Who May Abide. This aria can be sung by a soprano, alto or bass, as it is a human reaction to the previous words of God. Many performances use the bass voice as the work seamlessly transitions from one to the other. Opening with the open question ‘But who may abide’, the pensive start to this aria sets the scene as the voice responds to the word of God. 

A quick shift to a prestissimo tempo creates excitement to the line ‘For He is like a refiner’s fire’. The strings shadow what the movements of the voice as the two begin to entangle. The opening question is asked once more in the slow opening style, but this is a shortened version and the quick tempo soon resumes. The last time the question is asked Handel writes in a cadenza for the vocalist, so that they can express it how they see fit. This dramatic scene in the oratorio concludes with a thrilling orchestral postlude. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… G.F. Handel: Thus Saith the Lord


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