The "Messiah" (HWV 56) is an English-language oratorio
composed in 1741 by George Frideric Handel, with a
scriptural text compiled by Charles Jennens from the
King James Bible, and from the Psalms included with the
Book of Common Prayer (which are worded slightly
differently from their King James counterparts). It was
first performed in Dublin on 13 April 1742, and
received its London premiere nearly a year later. After
an initially modest public reception, the oratorio
gained in popularity, eventually becoming one of the
best-known and most frequently performed choral works
in Western music.
Handel's reputation in England, where he had lived
since 1713, had been established through his
compositions of Italian opera. He turned to English
oratorio in the 1730s, in response to changes in public
taste; Messiah was his sixth work in this genre.
Although its structure resembles that of conventional
opera, it is not in dramatic form; there are no
impersonations of characters and very little direct
speech. Instead, Jennens's text is an extended
reflection on Jesus Christ as Messiah, moving from the
prophetic phrases of Isaiah and others, through the
Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection of Christ to his
ultimate glorification in heaven.
Handel wrote Messiah for modest vocal and instrumental
forces, with optional settings for many of the
individual numbers. In the years after his death, the
work was adapted for performance on a much larger
scale, with giant orchestras and choirs. In other
efforts to update it, its orchestration was revised and
amplified by (among others) Mozart. In the late 20th
and early 21st centuries the trend has been towards
authenticity; most contemporary performances show a
greater fidelity towards Handel's original intentions,
although "big Messiah" productions continue to be
The three-part structure of the work approximates to
that of Handel's three-act operas, with the "parts"
subdivided by Jennens into "scenes". Each scene is a
collection of individual numbers or "movements" which
take the form of recitatives, arias and choruses. There
are two instrumental numbers, the opening Sinfony in
the style of a French overture, and the pastoral Pifa,
often called the "pastoral symphony", at the mid-point
of Part I.
The pastoral interlude that follows begins with the
short instrumental movement, the Pifa, which takes its
name from the shepherd-bagpipers, or pifferare, who
played their pipes in the streets of Rome at Christmas
time. Handel wrote the movement in both 11-bar and
extended 32-bar forms; according to Burrows, either
will work in performance.
Although originally written for period instruments, I
created this arrangement for Concert (Pedal) Harp.