If this doesn't make you want to sing and shout praises, I don't know what will.
George Frideric Handel's Messiah was originally an Easter offering. It burst onto the stage of Musick Hall in Dublin on April 13, 1742. The audience swelled to a record 700, as ladies had heeded pleas by management to wear dresses "without Hoops" in order to make "Room for more company." Handel's superstar status was not the only draw; many also came to glimpse the contralto, Susannah Cibber, then embroiled in a scandalous divorce.
The men and women in attendance sat mesmerized from the moment the tenor followed the mournful string overture with his piercing opening line: "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God." Soloists alternated with wave upon wave of chorus, until, near the midway point, Cibber intoned: "He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." So moved was the Rev. Patrick Delany that he leapt to his feet and cried out: "Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!"
Now, of course, Messiah is a fixture of the Christmas season. Woe to the concert hall in the United States or Britain that fails to schedule the piece around the holiday, when, as well, CD sales and Web downloads of the oratorio soar. For many amateur choirs, the work is the heart of their repertoire and the high point of the year. In most of Handel's oratorios, the soloists dominate and the choir sings only brief choruses. But in Messiah, says Laurence Cummings, director of the London Handel Orchestra, "the chorus propels the work forward with great emotional impact and uplifting messages."
This year, the 250th anniversary of Handel's death, has been a boon to the Baroque composer and his best-known work. The commemoration has centered in London, where Handel lived for 49 years, until his death in 1759 at age 74. The BBC has broadcast all of his operas, more than 40 in total, and every one of the composer's keyboard suites and cantatas was performed during the annual London Handel Festival, which included concerts at St. George's Hanover Square church, where Handel worshiped, and at the Handel House Museum ("See Handel Slept Here,"), longtime residence of the man that Ludwig van Beethoven himself, citing Messiah, said was the "greatest composer that ever lived."