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Handel’s Messiah: Kind of a Bore

Am I allowed to say that?

We’re all familiar, I think, with the “Halleluiah Chorus,” which is no doubt one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. But there’s a reason it’s usually the one part of Messiah that gets sung. And the reason is that the rest of the program is dull by comparison.

Nativity scene and music notes

Illustration by Maruba via Fotolia.com

In a city the size of Orlando, there are usually multiple opportunities to hear Messiah at Christmastime, but this year one of those performances was offered at my church, so of course I attended.

Should’ve brought my knitting.

Not to criticize the singers—they were terrific. The problem is that the score is long—full performances can run two and a half or three hours. So conductors often edit Messiah to a more manageable length. Only the first act is the Christmas story. The second act is the passion, ending with the Halleluiah Chorus, and the third act is the resurrection.

The performance I attended was about 90 minutes. But even then, some of the individual portions were tiresome. As an example, in the Messiah’s libretto Part One section 3 “Air,” consists of this line: “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain” (Isaiah 40:4).

It takes about three minutes for the tenor to sing it.

My conversation with the text ran something like this:

Tenor: Ev’ry valley…

Me: …shall be exalted.

Tenor: Ev’ry valley shall be exalted.

Me: Yes, I get that.

Tenor: Shall beeeeeee exa-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-alted.

Me: Seriously?

Tenor: Shall be exalted.

Me: You said that already.

Tenor: Shall be exa-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-alted.

Me: Get on with it!

The word “exalted” is drawn out almost comically—for about four measures of eighth and sixteenth notes. That’s ten full seconds in this example:

Modern worship song writers have nothing on Handel for repeating one line multiple times to make the song longer.

Maybe Handel was just trying to write some stuff for singers to show their chops, but I gotta say, sitting through a whole program of this was wearying. Of course, in my case (possibly unique), I went to the church performance straight from a matinee of The Last Jedi, so I had already spent two and a half hours sitting on my tuchus watching a show that was way more exciting, although of less exalted subject matter.

As a fan of classical music, I had expected to love Handel’s Messiah. I’m kind of disappointed in myself for reacting this way. But maybe I’m not the only one. Ever been to a lengthy performance of Messiah? What did you think of it?


To see these crazy arias for yourself, you can download the full score of Handel’s Messiah from Sheet Music Archive.


About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

One comment on “Handel’s Messiah: Kind of a Bore

  1. I’ve never been to a lengthy performance of it but I loved the clip you showed. And I did like the singing (but I like Gilbert & Sullivan so…) but after you pointed out the repetition, I couldn’t help but laugh. 😀

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