"To God be the glory"


At this time of year choirs and orchestras everywhere are preparing to perform George Frideric Handel’s much loved oratorio, "Messiah". Amazingly the musical score, running to 259 manuscript pages, was completed in a frenzy of composition between 24 August and 14 September 1741 – just 24 days. When the work was done Handel inscribed his score with the letters "SDG" – "Soli Deo Gloria" ("to God be the glory").

The first performance took place in Dublin in April 1742. Gentlemen were asked to remove their swords, and ladies asked not to wear hoops in their dresses so that 700 people could squeeze into the Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street. "Words are wanting to describe the exquisite delight it afforded to the admiring and crowded audience..." acclaimed the press review, and the takings of around £400 were donated equally to prisoner’s debt relief, the Mercer’s Hospital and the Charitable Infirmary.

Swords and hooped dresses are no longer a problem for the audiences of today, but a performance of the "Messiah", combining the majestic text of the King James Bible and Handel’s glorious music, remains a moving and enthralling experience.

Handel’s librettist was Charles Jennings, a devout Christian and a believer in the inspired authority of the Bible, the Word of God. The oratorio has been described as "a meditation of our Lord as Messiah in Christian thought and belief" and almost every word is faithful to the text of the King James Bible.

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The birth of Messiah foretold

We are reminded of the many Old Testament prophecies about the birth of the Messiah. For example, "Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel; God with us! (Isaiah 7:14); which in Matthew 1:23 the angel of the Lord uses to reassure Joseph that the child Jesus his betrothed wife Mary was carrying was conceived of the Holy Spirit.

The future role of the Messiah as ruler over the Kingdom of God is captured in a thrilling chorus:

"For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulders, and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace". (Isaiah 9:6)

The Lamb of God

All too soon we find ourselves at the foot of the cross, as we hear an agonising contralto solo:

"He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief..." followed by a hushed chorus: "Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him."

Once again, the text is from Isaiah 53 in the Old Testament, an amazing prophecy of the crucifixion.

"Since by man came death..."

"Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive". (1 Corinthians 15:21-22)

This is closely followed by the thrilling dialogue between the bass soloist and a solo trumpet:

"The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality". 1 Corinthians 15:52-53)


But for many the high point of the oratorio is the majestic Hallelujah chorus. The custom of standing for this chorus is said to originate from the first performance in London in 1743 attended by King George. When he was moved to stand, everyone present was obliged to follow his lead!

"Hallelujah! For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever. King of kings, and Lord of Lords. Hallelujah!" (Revelation 19:6,16)