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Why has ‘Messiah’ been so popular for nearly 300 years?

The oratorio is ubiquitous — and while it’s associated with Christmas, the music has proven to transcend faiths

Countertenor soloist John Holiday singing in Handel and Haydn Society's annual performance of "Messiah" on Nov. 24, 2023. (Robert Torres)Robert Torres

Much has been written about the fact that George Frideric Handel completed the music for “Messiah” in three weeks. Divine inspiration, some have speculated. Or maybe the spark of genius. The oratorio’s librettist, Charles Jennens, was not so impressed. In January 1743, less than a year after the oratorio’s successful world premiere in Dublin, Jennens confided in a letter to a friend that he thought Handel’s speed was a product of slapdash negligence. “‘Messiah’ has disappointed me,” he wrote. “I shall put no more Sacred Words into his hands, to be thus abus’d.”

“Messiah” also failed to win over audiences during its first run of performances in London, where the Germany-born Handel lived and worked for most of his life. So lackluster was the response that Handel canceled the last performance of the oratorio’s scheduled four-night run at the Covent Garden Theatre and replaced it with an encore performance of another oratorio, “Samson,” which had drawn sold-out crowds to the theater the previous month.

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Fast forward almost three centuries, and it’s not impossible to find a performance of “Samson,” especially in the United Kingdom. But when my family asks me why I have to leave Thanksgiving weekend early every year, it’s invariably because of “Messiah.”

Boston, MA 12/10/2015 – Bass-baritone Dashon Burton (cq) singing during Boston Baroque's performance of Handel's "Messiah" at Jordan Hall in 2015. (Globe staff photo / Craig F. Walker) Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

For a piece of art to become a cultural sensation is one thing, but for it to stay one for nearly 300 years is quite another. “Messiah” isn’t just popular; it’s ubiquitous. It’s an annual tradition for the Handel and Haydn Society and Boston Baroque, Boston’s two large period-instrument orchestras. Community choruses often include excerpts in their holiday programs. A quick Google search showed me three MBTA-accessible “Messiah” community sing-alongs during the month of December, and one “Drunk Opera History” show courtesy of Opera on Tap.

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Reading British conductor Jane Glover’s book “Handel in London” revealed some clues as to how the fortunes of “Messiah” may have turned. In 1749, the composer presented a benefit concert in London for the newly established Foundling Hospital, and the event was attended by members of the royal family. On the program was “Music for the Royal Fireworks” and an anthem composed specifically for the occasion, which included some material from “Messiah.”

The next year, Handel conducted the complete “Messiah” to raise funds for the hospital. The response was rapturous enough that he reprised the benefit again every year until he died in 1759, bequeathing a score and set of parts to the hospital so the tradition could continue. (It persisted for just short of 20 years.) Then, for the composer’s centennial in 1784, more than 500 musicians took part in the celebratory “Messiah.”

A poster advertisting a Handel and Haydn Society performance of "Messiah." Photo credit: James Doyle

The association of “Messiah” with Christmas in the English-speaking world was cemented later. In Handel’s time, oratorios were most frequently performed during Lent, when opera houses and theaters were customarily closed. However, by 1911, a Boston-area reviewer (as quoted in the Handel and Haydn Society’s “Messiah” program book) was writing that the oratorio was “like the first snow, or the winter solstice, an institution” for the city. At the time, H+H’s Christmastime tradition of performing “Messiah” was 57 years old and counting. The streak still remains unbroken.

Boston Baroque founding musical director Martin Pearlman didn’t intend to start a similar annual tradition when the period instrument orchestra (then called Banchetto Musicale) first performed the piece in 1981. By that time, H+H had shrunk its “Messiah” chorus to 30 members but was still playing on modern instruments. Boston Baroque’s approach was “so different from the way ‘Messiah’ was being done back then,” Pearlman said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “There were a lot of requests for doing it again.” So they did it the next year, and the next. “Eventually we recorded it, and I thought that’d settle it. But no, there were even more requests!,” he said with a laugh.

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Boston Baroque music director Martin Pearlman leading the orchestra at GBH's Calderwood Studio in 2022. Boston Baroque

In short, just as audiences didn’t tire of “Messiah” in the 18th century, they still don’t now. However, there doesn’t seem to be one true reason for its longevity — or more accurately, there isn’t just one. Rather, there are so many reasons to connect with “Messiah” that throughout the generations, there has almost always been a critical mass of people to sing in the choirs and fill the seats.

For Christian listeners, the words may easily harmonize with their personal beliefs, but the music has proven it can transcend faiths. It’s “just incredibly powerful,” said Pearlman, who is Jewish and didn’t grow up listening to “Messiah.”

“There’s a quality in Handel where something just builds, and you don’t even know that it’s happening until you reach this fantastic moment,” Pearlman said. “And I think, ‘Oh my God, how did he do this?’”

Beyond the notes and words on the page, “Messiah” has come to represent a wintertime rite, to mark and make meaning out of the passage of time and the cycle of the year. As the Northern Hemisphere spins through its longest nights every year at the winter solstice, “Messiah” shepherds listeners through the depths of darkness, toward a blaze of light. Now that’s worth a “hallelujah.”

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BOSTON BAROQUE Dec. 2, 7:30 p.m., GBH’s Calderwood Studio, Brighton; Dec. 3, 3 p.m., NEC’s Jordan Hall. 617-987-8600, https://baroque.boston

COMMUNITY MESSIAH SINGS Dec 5, 7:30 p.m., Dunster House, Harvard University, Cambridge; Dec. 14, 7 p.m., First Church in Chestnut Hill, Newton; Dec. 20, 5:15 p.m., Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Boston. https://dunster.harvard.edu/arts-and-music; https://firstchurchchestnuthill.org/events/messiah-sing/; https://stpaulsmessiahsing.eventbrite.com

OPERA ON TAP Dec. 16, noon, The Burren, Somerville. www.operaontapboston.com


A.Z. Madonna can be reached at az.madonna@globe.com. Follow her @knitandlisten.