The holidays are here, and with Christmas quickly approaching, many of us are busting out our likely well-worn Messiah scores. Full disclosure, mine no longer has a cover. Second hand purchase or mid-performance fumble? You decide.
A staple of Christmastime concerts, services, and more than occasional sing-along events, Handel’s Messiah remains a stalwart in holiday traditions all over the world. Love it or hate it, it is one of the few works that most in the general public recognize, thus leading to its perennial performances (and helping a good number of musicians pay their bills in December). Christmas performances usually just include Part One of the three-part composition, often with the “Hallelujah” Chorus from Part Two inserted at the end. And while Handel’s masterpiece is beloved by many, some movements are certainly more…enjoyable than others.
Here is my ranking of every movement in Messiah Part One (plus the “Hallelujah” Chorus):
22. Pifa ("pastoral symphony": instrumental)
.5 out of 10 Yokes + Maybe 1 Burthen
Don’t get me wrong, this little pastoral symphony is absolutely gorgeous. However, it’s agonizing when played too slowly and really slows down the momentum half-way through Part One. Still, it does get props for giving the singers a much-appreciated moment to sit.
21. & 20. Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened (secco recitative for soprano or alto) & He shall feed his flock like a shepherd (alto and/or soprano)
1.5 out of 10 Yokes, 2 if sung by Alto and Soprano
I’m not going to lie, I always forget that these two movements exist. The recit is fine enough, but the aria is just a bit too sweet and lilting near the end of the evening. The text about being fed just makes me look forward to a post-concert snack. It can be made a bit more interesting by having both alto and soprano take turns in the aria, providing a contrast of vocal timbre. Still, not my favorite.
19. & 18. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth (bass) & The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light (bass)
3 out of 10 Yokes
This recit and aria provide some nice dramatic variety, with the text and character of the movements being a bit more sinister and mysterious than most in this section. That being said, the latter has an inclination to plod, making it more difficult for the bass to sustain the longer passages. Also, how did the bass end up with all of the doom and gloom?
17. Glory to God in the highest (chorus)
3.5 out of 10 Yokes
This might be controversial, but this movement just feels a bit too predictable. The oftentimes borderline yelling of “glory to God,” paired with the reduced dynamic of “and peace on Earth,” seems a bit too much like Text Painting 101 with Handel. It’s a fairly decent movement that’s just a bit of a disappointment considering its prominent place in the score.
16. & 15. Behold, a virgin shall conceive (alto) & O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion (air for alto and chorus)
3.75 out of 10 Yokes
This alto aria fares significantly better than number 20 on our list, but still suffers from a slightly awkward recit. It’s not the dullest aria and has a fairly interesting string accompaniment, but the whole thing is interrupted by the chorus. Can’t we let an alto have their moment?
14. & 13. There were shepherds abiding in the fields (secco recitative for soprano), And lo, the angel of the Lord (accompanied recitative for soprano), And the angel said unto them (secco recitative for soprano)
4 out of 10 Yokes
Recit is an efficient way to convey some of the more text-heavy moments of the Christmas story. These certainly propel the work forward, though they aren’t anything really groundbreaking. They also have the added difficulty of shifting the mood after the pastoral symphony.
12. And the glory of the Lord (anthem chorus)
5 out of 10 Yokes
Regal, lively, and hard to remember which sequence comes next. This is the first time we hear the chorus and it’s truthfully a pretty fun movement to sing. Each section of the choir has a feature moment and the interplay of the vocal lines is interesting to listen to.
11. Comfort ye my people (tenor)
5.5 out of 10 Yokes
When performed well, this movement eases the audience into the work like a warm blanket. Since it’s the first vocal movement, it’s well-known and familiar. Comforting, even (wink wink). However, that does raise the stakes a bit for the tenor soloist who also has to create two distinct moods in back to back arias.
10. And he shall purify the sons of Levi (chorus)
6.25 out of 10 Yokes
This movement, I find extremely satisfying. Exiting the exciting melismatic motifs and landing on the consonance of “and may they offer unto the Lord…” feels like something akin to landing a triple axel.
9. But who may abide the day of His coming (soprano, alto or bass)
7 out of 10 Yokes
This aria seems to be your typical everyday downtrodden alto aria, until out of nowhere, the B section smacks you across with the sudden tremolo of the strings. It’s an unexpected and passionate twist that makes the rest of the aria seem especially dull. Points earned for shock value here.
8. His yoke is easy (duet chorus)
7 out of 10 Yokes
Ok, I have to say what we’re all thinking. Why, dear lord, why must we sing the word “burthen” so many times? This movement is perky and moves quickly, but it just doesn’t feel like a satisfactory close to the first part. This usually doesn’t matter since the Hallelujah Chorus is often interpolated after.
7. And suddenly there was with the angel (accompanied recitative for soprano)
8 out of 10 Yokes
Um, excuse me, but this 10 second recit did not need to go this hard. An absolute master class on how to build excitement in a short span of time. It’s just a shame that the movement it leads into “Glory to God,” didn’t place higher on the list.
6. Thus saith the Lord of hosts (accompanied recitative for bass)
8.5 out of 10 Yokes
Who doesn’t love a little bit of bass rage? The jagged string accompaniment gives this movement a pronounced dignity, while the melismatic “shake” has the potential to give the audience an early dose of goosebumps.
5. Ev'ry valley shall be exalted (air for tenor)
8.5 out of 10 Yokes
This aria offers an immediate contrast to “Comfort Ye,” and is definitely one of the most iconic Handel tenor arias. The coloratura is invigorating without being excessive. The end of the aria also offers one of the few opportunities for ornamentation or a very brief cadenza in Part One.
4. Overture (instrumental)
8.75 out of 10 Yokes
This rather concise overture or sinfonia holds up well both in the context of the work and on its own. The dramatic content of the entire work is set up by the majestic dotted rhythms in the strings, while the tragedy is coaxed out of the stress of the woodwinds underpinned by chromatic movements in the bass line. Very Baroque, very Handel, and very nearly perfect. There’s some debate as to the tempi and I think the overture loses some rhythmic drive when played too unhurriedly, but it doesn’t have to rush either.
3. Hallelujah (Chorus)
8.999 out of 10 Yokes
She doesn’t even go here. I mean, yes. Everyone knows it. It’s a great piece of music, sure. But I can’t rate it higher because it just doesn’t really belong here, no matter how standard it is to include it in Part One Christmas performances. Also, considerably overdone and overplayed. Sorry!
2. For unto us a child is born (duet chorus)
9.5 out of 10 Yokes
I cannot hear the Christmas story read or talk about people who are having children without this coming to mind. It’s an ear worm and quite frankly offers a VERY similar impression to the Hallelujah Chorus. You get a little fugue, a little coloratura, and it really focuses on the subject of the work.
1. Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion (soprano)
10 out of 10 Yokes
Ok sopranos. You did it again. You got the best solo. Congratulations because this aria just oozes Christmas joy. It’s light, effervescent, and is the other aria that offers some substantial opportunities for embellishment (although don’t overdo it - or incur the wrath of stodgy church ladies). It is truly the star on the Messiah Christmas tree.
Think these opinions are controversial? I'm eager to know what you think and how you would rank some of these movements. We’d also love to hear any Messiah-related stories in the comments. Have a wonderful holiday season and happy Hallelujah-ing!
-- Preston Hereford