Getting a Handel on Messiah


98 pages
ISBN 0-920151-17-5
DDC 782.23'092





Illustrations by Dave Donald
Reviewed by Desmond Maley

Desmond Maley is the music librarian at the J.W. Tate Library,
Huntington College, Laurentian University.


Humorist Barber, a former newspaper editor turned freelance writer,
musician, and used-book store owner, aims his satirical darts at George
Frederick Handel’s oratorio Messiah in his latest musical offering.

In short chapters, Barber playfully examines the origins, performance,
and reception of what he describes as a Sacred Cow. We learn that the
19-year-old future composer of Messiah was almost killed in a sword
fight in Hamburg with an erstwhile friend. We follow Handel’s
boom-and-bust career as an opera impresario in London, and how in
desperation he gradually turned to writing oratorios. We meet Charles
Jennens, the rich, eccentric, and talented creator of Messiah’s
libretto, who used extracts from the Old and New Testaments to construct
a meditation on Christ’s life.

Barber sorts out the tangled history of the work’s reception, from
its rapturous premiere in Dublin in April 1742 to the surprisingly cool
response in London that followed. Messiah today is the ultimate sacred
choral work of the English language, but at first it was considered too
theatrical. He also highlights the small orchestral and vocal forces
that were at Handel’s disposal, in contrast to the mammoth productions
of the 19th and 20th centuries. But Barber is on shakier ground when he
claims that Messiah was written for money. Handel picked a blue-ribbon
charity concert for the Dublin premiere and, from 1750 onwards, he
presided over performances that were invariably charity events.

Although there is too much material on Handel’s early days and not
enough on the music itself, Barber does have a gift for bringing to life
memorable characters and situations. The narrative is adroitly sprinkled
with quotations from original sources, which gives it added color and
flavor. Donald’s illustrations leaven the proceedings.

Music lovers would do well to start with this entertaining introduction
if they want to know more about Handel and his magnum opus.


Barber, David W., “Getting a Handel on Messiah,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 30, 2024,