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Dr Christopher Lewis at his harpsichord

Christmas is associated with so many different kinds of music, but for many, there is one work that towers above all others – Handel’s Messiah (1741). Messiah is an English Oratorio by the composer George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759) and for me, nothing says Christmas quite like it (despite the fact it was always intended for Easter!). For so much of the world, Messiah has become an essential Christmas tradition.

The German born Handel became an icon of Britain within his own lifetime, and even now it is hard to imagine so many of our glorious of British events, without his music. For example, Zadok the Priest, one of his coronation anthems, written for the crowning of King George II in 1727, has been used in every single coronation since then – and (remarkably) is the only piece of music to have done so (along with a rearrangement of the work which has become the national anthem for football!)

In 1741, Handel was en-route to Dublin to finalise the work, but on his journey over, he was delayed in Chester for a few days. As such, it is more than likely that Handel conducted some parts of the work for the very first time at Chester Cathedral. Oh, to have a recording (or a video!) of this momentous event! I am quite sure that every time I step into the building, the distant memories of that most special of occasions can still be heard, and I am sure the Hallelujah chorus can be still heard echoing distantly throughout the rafters of the building! During his brief visit, Handel stayed at the Golden Falcon Inn (the location of which is contested), but was close to the Northgate, a short stroll down to the Cathedral. The Golden Falcon Inn may well have been in the building that now houses the Liverpool Arms public house, or possibly where the restaurant Chez Jules now stands.

Messiah is most unusual as the work was immediately popular and has never declined in popularity since the premiere. In fact, the work has continued to grow in popularity, especially in both the UK and the USA. In 1857, the "Great Handel Festival" was held in Crystal Palace, London and included a performance of Messiah. The performance featured an orchestra of over 500 musicians and a choir with a whopping 2000 singers - a testament to the admiration and love for Handel. Plus, a long stretch from any original intentions of the composer! More recent gospel and hip-hop arrangements of the work have ensured that Messiah continues to be developed, and to attract new audiences.

As for why the work has remained so universally popular, well this is simple to answer; the music is beautiful, exquisitely written, and with a message of universal and joyful optimism behind it. The idea of hope and belief over tragedy and betrayal, pours out over the score and the listener can be moved by any combination of the music, the message, or the very spirit itself. This is true in so many of the remarkable moments of the work - choruses such as And the Glory of the Lord’, or the heart-wrenching aria ‘He was Despised’, all help to tell the story of Christ in a unique and thought-provoking way. To say nothing of the power of God and music coming together to form the monumental Hallelujah’ Chorus at the end of Part the Second.

Suffice to say that Handel was one of our greatest composers of all time, and I do wonder if our beautiful city of Chester in some way inspired him as he was putting some of the finishing flourishes, to this most famous, and most brilliant of all his works. Wishing you all a very happy and musical Christmas.

 

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