Handel’s Messiah in Jane Austen’s England

“I have not yet asked you how long you have been in Bath; whether you were ever here before; whether you have been at the Upper Rooms, the theatre, and the concert; and how you like the place altogether.” –Northanger Abbey

Update: I recently learned that Jane Austen’s family music books include a number of selections by Handel (more than by other classical composers), including at least one selection from The Messiah! Scans of the music books can be found at archive.org.

Recently I was privileged to hear a performance of Handel’s Messiah at the Dubai Opera House. It was a moving performance that brought tears to our eyes. Well over a thousand people gathered in this very international city of the world to hear this English classic.

Dubai Opera House cropped - 1
Handel’s Messiah is performed in many parts of the world every year; including this year in Dubai, United Arab Emirates!

Comfort ye, comfort ye, My people, saith your God.  (Isaiah 40:1)

The Messiah is all from the Bible, set to music. It begins with a long section of Old Testament promises of the coming Messiah, starting with the verse above. It continues with Jesus’ birth, life, crucifixion, and resurrection. Then comes the spread of the gospel and prophecies of Jesus’ second coming. It ends with all of heaven praising Jesus.


George Frideric Handel was born in Germany in 1685. He moved to London in 1710. At first he wrote Italian operas, but when they went out of style, he began writing oratorios. An oratorio is a large scale concert piece on a sacred subject. These were cheaper to produce, as they did not require the expensive costumes and sets used by operas.

In 1741, the Lord Lieutenant of Dublin asked Handel to write an oratorio based on a series of Bible verses in English. The verses were chosen by an art patron, Charles Jennens. Handel completed the music, amazingly, in about a month. The result was The Messiah. It was first performed in Dublin, Ireland on April 13, 1742.

Manuscript of Handel’s Messiah
The Messiah in Jane Austen’s Bath

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light;
and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.
(Isaiah 9:2)

The Messiah was first performed in Bath on Nov. 24, 1756. During the following years and throughout Austen’s lifetime, it was performed in Bath almost every year, and sometimes several times a year. It was presented in the Upper Rooms, in Bath Abbey, in other churches, and elsewhere.

A concert of the Messiah was held in 1767 to open the Octagon Chapel in Milsom Street. William Herschel, organist of the Octagon and the astronomer who discovered Uranus, conducted the Messiah in Bath for a number of years. His sister Caroline often sang the solos.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, . . . and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

While originally performed around Easter, the Messiah gradually became more popular at Christmastime. For many years, it was performed in Bath every Christmas Eve at the Assembly Rooms. It’s possible that Jane Austen might have seen one of these performances while she lived in Bath (1801-1806). Besides the Christmas performances during those years, it was also performed April 23, 1802 (a week after Easter) at Christ Church.

The Christmas Eve concerts of the Messiah in Bath were conducted by the famous conductor Rauzzini and the proceeds went to him. However, other Messiah concerts in Bath over the years were performed for various charity causes: to benefit the poor, hospitals, and Sunday Schools (designed to educate the poor). When Christ Church, the first free church designed for the poor in England, opened in 1799, a concert of the Messiah helped to pay off the building expenses.

IMG_2128 Octagon room upper rooms
In Bath, Christmas Eve Messiah Concerts were held in the Assembly Rooms.
The “Hallelujah Chorus”

Hallelujah; Hallelujah, 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 (forever, and ever, hallelujah, hallelujah), and Lord of Lords (forever, and ever, hallelujah, hallelujah) . . . And He shall reign forever and ever . . .  Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!     Hallelujah! (Revelation 19:6; 11:15; 19:16)

In Dubai, only maybe a third of the audience stood for the Hallelujah Chorus. But for most western audiences, we automatically stand when the chorus starts.  Why? According to tradition, it’s because King George II stood at the start of the chorus at the Messiah’s first performance in London, March 23, 1743. And if the king stood, everyone had to stand. (This was the father of King George III, who ruled during Jane Austen’s lifetime. George II was the grandfather of the Prince Regent.) We don’t know for sure if this actually happened. And the king may have just been standing because he was tired of sitting and needed to move a bit. But in any case, the tradition is firmly established today! And to me it seems quite natural to stand up during this powerful section that proclaims Jesus as “King of kings and Lord of lords.”

The Messiah and the Evangelicals

Handel also wrote music for some of the Methodist hymns, including hymns by Charles Wesley and hymns for the hymnbook of the Methodist leader, the Countess of Huntingdon. Late in his life, Handel said setting Scripture to music had given him pleasure, and that he found much comfort in the “sublime passages” of the Psalms. The Countess of Huntingdon knew Handel, and visited him shortly before he died in 1759, at his request. She wrote, “He is now old, and at the close of his long career; yet he is not dismayed at the prospect before him. Blessed be God for the comfort and consolations which the Gospel affords in every situation, and in every time of our need” (Memoir of Lady Huntingdon, 178).

In 1784, 25 years after Handel’s death, a Commemoration of Handel was held in Westminster Abbey in London. (Jane Austen was eight years old at this time.) It was intended to be “on so grand and magnificent a scale as no other part of the world could equal.” Five concerts were performed. For the Messiah, 4,500 people gathered to hear 525 performers.

Commemoration of Handel at Westminster Abbey, 1784

While this must have been an impressive event, some Christians had reservations.  While everyone in the country was talking about the Commemoration, John Newton (author of “Amazing Grace”) took the occasion to preach a series of 50 sermons based on the Bible passages used in the Messiah. The sermons were later published. (Books of sermons were quite popular in Austen’s England, and she read many herself).

But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner’s fire. (Malachi 3:2)

Newton’s fourth sermon focuses on a passage of judgment, Malachi 3:1-3. He imagines a group of people convicted of treason, with their guilt fully proved. However, instead of begging their judge for mercy, they make a musical entertainment out of their coming trial, their judge’s character, the sentence they deserve, and the offer of a possible reprieve.

This, Newton says, describes most of those who perform and listen to the Messiah. It expresses the truths they need, but instead of accepting those truths in their hearts, they listen indifferently, for entertainment. He urges his listeners to hear the message itself.

Newton and the Messiah
Newton’s Opinion of the Messiah; From John Newton Project, taken from Newton’s journals

Newton also quotes his friend William Cowper, one of Jane Austen’s favorite poets. In The Task, Cowper says that people listen to “Messiah’s eulogy, for Handel’s sake.” He claims they honor a man (Handel) rather than honoring God.

Handel’s Messiah, however, closes with a triumphant chorus, pointing back to the Messiah Himself:

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom,
and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.
Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever.
Amen. (Revelation 5:12-14)

Years ago I read a short story, which I can’t locate now. But it stuck with me. A man goes to hear the Messiah, and it touches his heart. His life is transformed by the message he hears. He goes out and earnestly persuades all his friends to hear it with him again, thinking they will respond as he did. But, sadly, they are not touched at all. They listen to it as a beautiful piece of music, nothing more. How do you respond to the powerful words of the Messiah?

Sources for Further Exploration (in addition to links included above)

Lyrics (verses)

Complete concert on youtube Messiah

Memoir of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, A.H. New. (NY: Protestant Episcopal Society for the Promotion of Evangelical Knowledge, 1858)

John Newton’s Sermons on the Messiah Follow links to the Appendix for Cowper’s poem, and for parallel passages from the Messiah and Newton’s sermons, as well as a timeline.

The Bath Messiah: The Celebration of 250 Years of a Provincial Choral Tradition by Andrew Clarke (Exeter: Rougemont Associates, 2007).

Newton’s Messiah sermons, original book

The History of “Hallelujah” Chorus


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