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Classics on Sunday: Handel – For Unto Us a Child is Born (Messiah)

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IN the run-up to Christmas I had to mention Handel’s Messiah. I suppose the Hallelujah Chorus is the best-known movement, but although often performed at Christmas, with Part I of the work, it belongs to Part II, the Easter section. I think this song from Part I is equally lovely.

The libretto for Messiah, consisting of Biblical texts mainly from the Old Testament, was put together by Handel’s friend and collaborator Charles Jennens (1700-1773). He was a wealthy landowner, but after the deposition and exile of James II & VII in the 1688 Glorious Revolution, he refused to swear the oath of allegiance to his successors William III and Mary II. This made him ineligible for public office, so he devoted himself to the arts.

He prepared or contributed to libretti for Handel’s Saul and probably Israel in Egypt (both written in 1738) and L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1740).

In July 1741 Jennens sent Handel a new libretto for an oratorio; in a letter dated 10 July, Jennens wrote to a friend: ‘I hope [Handel] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other subject. The Subject is Messiah.’

Handel began work on Messiah on 22 August and produced the complete work on 14 September. It is held in the British Library and you can see pages from it here, with all the crossings out and ink blots. At the end of his manuscript he wrote the letters ‘SDG’, standing for Soli Deo Gloria, or ‘To God alone the glory’. This inscription, plus the speed of composition, has encouraged the belief that Handel wrote the music in a fervour of divine inspiration. However many of Handel’s operas and oratorios were composed in similar timescales. He began his next oratorio, Samson, within a week of finishing Messiah, and completed the draft in a month.

Jennens was evidently not thrilled with Messiah, writing to his friend: ‘[Handel] has made a fine entertainment of it, though not near so good as he might and ought to have done. I have with great difficulty made him correct some of the grossest faults in the composition; but he retained his overture obstinately, in which there are some passages far unworthy of Handel, but much more unworthy of the Messiah.

This is the offending overture:

For Unto Us a Child is Born is taken from the prophecy in Isaiah 9, verse 6: ‘For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counseller, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace’ (King James version).

Here it is by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge:

and this is the score:

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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