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A ‘Messiah’ that was ‘sublime beyond description’

A broadside advertising the 1785 Handel Festival in Westminster Abbey.

One of the area’s most bountiful crops — holiday performances of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” — is again being harvested. The Handel and Haydn Society inaugurates a parade of presentations, large and small, across the region. (The list below is but a partial, local sample.) The work’s trans-Atlantic passage altered its season: Handel’s Easter oratorio has, in America, became a yuletide staple. But one springtime performance of “Messiah,” in 1785, linked the composer’s British eminence with the burgeoning power of Britain’s former American colonies.

In May 1785, John Adams traveled to London as the United States’ first ambassador to Great Britain. He had been in Europe for nearly a decade, negotiating aid from the French, peace with the British, and trade with numerous European powers. Now Adams became the new country’s official representative in the halls of its recent enemy.


Adams arrived in a Handel-mad city. The second great Handel Festival, a sequel to the previous year’s observance of the 25th anniversary of the composer’s death, was about to begin: Concerts featuring hundreds of performers and thousands of aristocratic listeners packed into Westminster Abbey. Adams’s formal presentation to George III was a scrupulously scripted scene, but the following day, at the king’s birthday reception, Adams witnessed George extemporaneously extol Handel’s music to the Spanish ambassador for some 15 minutes — an extraordinary indulgence for an event at which hundreds awaited a greeting. (The king’s fandom ran deep: He personally edited the official commemorative account of the first festival, after deciding that it wasn’t effusive enough for “a real admirer of Handel.”)

Adams’s wife, Abigail, attended the finale of the 1785 Handel Festival: “Messiah,” in all its grandeur. She sent her impressions to Thomas Jefferson, who had become a friend while both were living in France. The friendship later foundered on bitter political rivalry, but at the time, she wished Jefferson could have witnessed the “Sublime beyond description” performance: “Your favorite passion would have received the highest gratification.” The only blemish was that eternal scourge, a talker, “whose volubility not all the powers of Musick could still.”


Weeks later, reviewing the concert in a letter to her niece, Abigail Adams was still in thrall: “I was one continued shudder from the beginning to the end of the performance.” But, for moral instruction, she contrasted “Messiah” with rampant inequality and criminality that, to her, revealed “some essential defect in the Government and Morals” of European nations; the United States, in 1785, was still “a happier Land, a Land of Liberty and virtue, comparatively speaking.” One might wonder what Mrs. Adams would make of the ubiquity of “Messiah” in America, circa 2017.

Handel’s “Messiah” will be performed by, among others, the Handel and Haydn Society (Dec. 1-3 at Symphony Hall, tickets $25-$102, www.handelandhaydn.org); Boston Baroque (Dec. 8-9 at Jordan Hall, $25-$90, www.bostonbaroque.org); Trinity Church in Copley Square (Dec. 10, $10-$60, www.trinitychurchconcerts.org); the North End Music and Performing Arts Center (Dec. 13 at St. Stephen’s Church, $5-$10, www.nempacboston.org); and King’s Chapel (a free, lunchtime condensed “Messiah,” Dec. 19, www.kings-chapel.org/tuesday-recitals).

Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.