Handel's Messiah: 6 surprising facts

George Frideric Handel's oratorio Messiah is probably the most famous piece of classical music in the world, and a particular favorite at Christmas. But how well do you know it?

Here's one: It wasn't originally intended for Christmastime

Michael Newnham, conductor and musical director of Symphony New Brunswick, is one of countless people to have conducted a version of Handel's Messiah. (Symphony New Brunswick)

With the Hallelujah Chorus as its centerpiece, George Frideric Handel's oratorio Messiah is probably the most famous piece of classical music in the world, performed thousands of times every year at Christmas.

You may have been to a performance yourself — but how well do you know Messiah?

Here are a few things that may surprise you.

1. Messiah wasn't originally intended for Christmas.

The work premiered in Dublin in 1742 — at Easter time. In fact, Messiah was always intended for Lent. It was the Victorians who moved it to Christmas, to revive interest in that then-neglected holiday.

Incidentally, the first London performance was a disaster. The fact that a religious work was being performed in a theatre, not a church, scandalized London audiences. Eventually, when Handel gave all the proceedings from Messiah to charity, London came around, but only then.

2. Handel wrote Messiah for a fairly small ensemble.

In 2013, the Flin Flon Community Choir was invited to perform Handel's Messiah in New York City. (Crystal Banting)

Handel's orchestra and choir was pretty small, maybe 20 musicians and 15 singers. It was the Imperial-mad Victorians in the late nineteenth century who filled the Crystal Palace with thousands of singers and hundreds of musicians, completely distorting everything Handel had written — and making for a long evening.

At the lugubrious pace you had to take to get 5,000 singers to navigate Handel's choruses, a single performance could take five hours (complete with a dinner break).

3. Handel wrote the entire three-hour work in 18 days.

Handel composed the piece in a white-hot frenzy of creativity in July and August of 1741 (and then wrote his oratorio Samson in the following three weeks).

However, he did help himself to parts of earlier compositions he had written years before. The choruses "And He Shall Purify," "For Unto Us a Child Is Born" and "His Yoke Is Easy" were all lifted from little Italian love arias Handel had composed 20 years earlier.

4. Handel wept while he composed the Hallelujah Chorus and claimed he saw visions of angels while he worked on the piece.

Was Handel a religious man? We haven't the faintest idea. We know almost nothing about Handel's personal and private life – which is surprising given he was one of the most famous men in England during his lifetime. But we do know that the compositional process moved him deeply.

5. Almost all the words for Messiah were taken from the Old Testament.

Even though Messiah tells the story of Jesus — from birth to death to Resurrection and beyond, almost all the texts were taken from the Old Testament — not the New. A neat trick, to tell Jesus's life using texts written long before he lived.

The reason Old Testament texts were chosen for Messiah is that the guy who compiled them, Charles Jennens, was using Messiah to fight a battle with a religious sect of the time called the Deists, who denied the reality of prophecy in the Bible. Jennens wanted to prove that the story of Jesus was completely prefigured in the Old Testament.

Thus, the text for Messiah. So, for example, the aria "He was despised, and rejected of men," one of Messiah's most famous, was not written about Jesus. It comes from Isaiah, chapter 53, verse three – written 700 years before Jesus was born.

6. Messiah is most popular with English speakers.

Audience members sing along to Handel's Messiah during The Holiday Pops featuring The Flint Symphony Orchestra in Flint, Mi. in 2014. (AP Photo/The Flint Journal, Erin Kirkland)

Yes, there are performances of Messiah everywhere, but the preponderance of performances are in the English-speaking world, and those places on the globe where British imperialism spread its tentacles.

Messiah is popular in England, of course, as well as in Canada, Australia and the United States, but also in places such as Nigeria, Kenya, Trinidad and South Africa (as a YouTube search will confirm).

The universal appeal of the work is hard to deny. The video of a flash mob singing the Hallelujah Chorus in a Welland, Ont. mall (it's actually Chorus Niagara, led by former CBC music producer Robert Cooper) has been viewed 47 million times and counting on YouTube.

VIDEO: Handel's Messiah flash mob in Welland, Ont.