Lessons Learned from Decades of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ Performances

I have performed Messiah almost every December over the last 30 years, and I never tire of playing it. Each conductor brings something different to the production.

By Sarah Freiberg | From the November-December 2022 issue of Strings magazine

I first encountered Handel’s beloved masterpiece in a sing-along version while in high school—I happily banged out the bass line on my cello, surrounded by a room full of enthusiastic choristers. Since then, I have performed Messiah almost every December over the last 30 years, and I never tire of playing it. In the words of Harry Christophers, conductor laureate of the Handel and Haydn Society: “I’ve done this piece hundreds of times. It’s always new.”

George Frideric Handel composed Messiah in his adopted hometown of London in 1741, with its first performance taking place in Dublin, Ireland, the following spring. A few years ago, as my husband and I wandered the Writers Museum in Dublin, I was blown away to stumble upon the chair that Handel himself sat in to watch the Messiah premiere. The Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, for which I play, was founded in 1815 with the idea of playing old (Handel) and new (Haydn) music, and has performed the work for 168 consecutive years! A couple of those almost didn’t happen—but more about that later.

Messiah, with a libretto fashioned by Charles Jennens from passages of the Bible, is an amazing example of Handel’s mastery of word painting. He vividly brings the words to life—such as making the melody move up and down for “the crooked,” followed by the single note “straight.” It is delightful to listen for these musical plays on words and marvel at his craftsmanship. However, it is the journey of the work that gets me every time. The arias of the four vocal soloists explore emotions with great depth, but it is the choruses that propel the story forward with force, particularly in Part II, culminating with the famous Hallelujah Chorus, bringing most audiences to their feet. The conclusion of the third (and last) part of the oratorio, the Amen Chorus, begins much more inwardly, building to a triumph that never fails to give me goosebumps. I think this is why I happily play the three-hour work numerous times each season.


After the successful Dublin premiere, Handel brought Messiah to London to great acclaim and continued to amend it for ensuing performances, usually to tailor the arias to the soloists at hand. Since there are many versions of Messiah, it is always important to know which one is being performed, and make sure the road map is clear. The Messiah orchestral parts are often well-loved, with many pencil markings, crossed-out sections, taped-over pages, and eraser marks. A whole orchestral history can be found on those pages! In one orchestra, I dutifully noted who played from that part each year on the back page of the music for well over a decade. While preparing for the most recent performances, I noticed directions such as “all cellos play–2006,” even though solo and tutti sections are clearly marked throughout the movement, or “1 cello in solos–2019.” And then I realize I was there for both productions—and all the ones in between. 

One change this past season came in the seating arrangement—the first and second violin sections often sit opposite each other, but because of the many unison passages in Messiah, they were cozied up next to each other. However, the cellos were sitting next to the second violins at our first rehearsal, with the violas closer to the edge of the stage. But, as our conductor noted, the violas don’t play many of the arias, and perhaps having the continuously playing cellos on the “outside” might be a better choice. And it was.

Each conductor brings something different to the production.

There have been years when I’ve performed the work five times with one orchestra, only to plunge into rehearsals of Messiah for another group a day or two later—often with most of the same string players. And that is part of the fun of performing Messiah—each conductor brings something different to the production. Harry Christophers, for example, is an extraordinary choral conductor—and the expression he gets from the Handel and Haydn Society chorus is astounding. But he demands that the orchestra play the words equally attentively, which is so illuminating. Different conductors take different amounts of time at the end of movements—some may slow down at each one, others propel the story forward with tension, pausing only to highlight the end of a large section. Some choose to cut a da capo from an aria or two, shortening the work just slightly. Others relish every bit of the piece and luxuriate in slow tempos on some of the arias. And all versions work.


Harry Christophers and the Sisteen Choir Orchestra perform Handel’s Messiah

While Handel intended Messiah to be an Easter offering, performed during Lent, here in the United States it has become a staple of the Christmas season, which makes for memorable productions, particularly on the East Coast. Quite often, a soloist will become indisposed due to illness, with last-minute substitutes stepping in, usually with aplomb. One memorable performance happened amidst a snowstorm. (The Handel and Haydn Society had only canceled two performances prior to that day—one of which was when Abraham Lincoln was shot.) My cello was buffeted by the wind as I made my way to and from the subway to Symphony Hall, and the audience that made the trek in successfully was so enthusiastic and appreciative, I didn’t mind the trip home in inches of snow. The following day, the substitute alto soloist offered to drive a group of us in to the performance—and her car got kissed by another that skidded on the icy roadway. Everyone was fine, though adrenaline ran higher than usual that afternoon.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Handel and Haydn Society’s annual cookie contest—which has been a beloved tradition for as long as I can remember. Performers and staff members are encouraged to bake goodies to bring before the Saturday Messiah, depositing one of them in each of 36 paper bags. Each individually wrapped cookie sports a Messiah inspired name. One of our own family-made concoctions was aptly called “And Heath Shall Reign Forever and Ever. Almond.” At intermission, performers rush offstage to purchase one of those bags, to consume the contents and vote for their favorites. The winners are announced during the Sunday intermission, with the number-one cookie baker made a bit richer—and saddled with running the following year’s event.


Messiah has impacted my life in other significant ways as well. When Philharmonia Baroque was preparing the work for performance and recording, I made the mistake of securing my cello case by placing my right thumb under the strap as I hiked into the UC Berkeley campus from my parking spot—and by the end of the run I had developed a raging case of tendonitis that forced me to take time off (and invest in backpack straps). On a happier note, a few years later, I missed Messiah, which I performed up and down the West Coast at that time, because my daughter had the audacity to be born in December. Upon moving to Boston a couple of years later, I forgot that wound gut strings dry out along with everything else in the cold East Coast winter air, and so I brought my buzzing instrument in to luthier Curtis Bryant, who happened to have just brought back an amazing Joseph Merlin cello from London. He kindly let me take it home while he looked over the instrument I had—and I have been playing the Merlin ever since.

In 2020, when Covid-19 shut down the world as we knew it, the Handel and Haydn Society created an extraordinary streaming event, “Handel’s Messiah for Our Time,” with just one player on a part, and the chorus and orchestra performing in separate spaces. I didn’t get to play Messiah that year, and I sorely missed it. I’m so glad to continue the tradition, and make it new again.