‘For unto us a child is born’ – Handel’s Messiah performed. Blog #5 by Edmund King

Posted on December 20th, 2012 by Amy

‘For unto us a child is born’ – Handel’s Messiah performed.

Attending, for the fifth time at the Royal Albert Hall, on the 2 December 2012, a performance of Handel’s Messiah, sung from scratch by 3,854 souls under the direction of Brian Kay, I wondered about the endurance of this work, and the love that people have of singing in it. For me, one of the most moving pieces is the passage ‘For unto us a child is born’, anticipating the birth of Christ.   What of other past performances? The British Newspaper Archive has plenty of articles.

The Messiah sufficiently well known less than twenty years after its composition in 1744 for the work to be included in the Three Choirs meeting, and formed on the 4th September 1861, and it is described as a ‘Sacred Oratorio’.

Oxford Journal – Saturday 15 August 1761 page 3



A year later on the 17th September 1762, the three choirs of Hereford, Gloucester, and of Worcester cathedrals gave a performance in Hereford cathedral. Tickets were not cheap at five shillings each.  It seems so unthinkable to us today; it was the newspapers which communicated with the performers, as: “The Performers are desired to be in the town on Sunday evening, in order to rehearse on Monday the 13th [September] in the Morning, and to dine with the Stewards on the day following.”

Oxford Journal – Saturday 28 August 1762

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000073/17620828/007/0002

For the Three Choirs meeting of September 1763, no less than three Handel oratorios were performed, all in the Booth Hall, Gloucester. On the 7th September there was – the oratorio Samson; on the 8th September, the oratorio Athalia; on the 9th September – Messiah.

Oxford Journal – Saturday 20 August 1763 page 2



The Manchester Mercury in 1766 advertised two performances of the Messiah, to celebrate the opening of the new organ at the parish church in Halifax. These were morning performances.

Manchester Mercury – Tuesday 19 August 1766 page 3



A week ahead of the concert, the Norfolk Chronicle advertised a performance of the Messiah at St. Peter’s [Mancroft ?] on the 10th September 1790.   In this, the chorus “for unto us a child is born” is cited.

Norfolk Chronicle – Saturday 04 September 1790 page 1

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000246/17900904/014/0001

The Elgin Courier reprinted a report from the Times giving a detailed account of the Messiah, as performed at the Sydenham Crystal palace during the afternoon of Monday 15th June 1857. The scale of the performance must have been magnificent, considering the huge size of the Crystal Palace. ‘“For unto us a child is born” was perfect’, ran the report, which ends by stating: “The Queen will be present at the performance today” (19 June). There are many other reports of this concert in the BNA.

Elgin Courier – Friday 19 June 1857

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000457/18570619/007/0002

The reporting of the Messiah became almost routine for many newspapers – the brief anticipatory entry in the Worcestershire Chronicle of April 1891 being typical.

Worcestershire Chronicle – Saturday 18 April 1891 page 2

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000350/18910418/013/0002

In its long report of the Handel Festival of 1891, The Dover Express included an illustration, giving us some idea of the great scale of these performances of the Messiah in the second half of the 19th century, in the Crystal Palace. There was even a press gallery, as we can see.

Dover Express – Friday 03 July 1891 page 2

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000330/18910703/004/0002

Photographs of a performance of the Messiah in Bath in 1939, conducted by Maurice Miles give us the sense of what it was like to work and sing in a large chorus. It gives us the immediacy of the chorus and the soloist Astra Desmond.

Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette – Saturday 25 March 1939 page 23

Image © Northcliffe Media Limited. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.


So, the performances today of Messiah from scratch reflect the movement of mass participation in its performance, which in turn generates by word of mouth more admiration and enthusiasm for the work. People come from all over the world to sing in the Albert Hall. These stirring performances today echo the enthusiasm of so many others, both in Dublin in 1742 (the original performances), and then all over the UK from that time onwards. For me, the music that Handel composed “For unto us a child is born” is one of the finest choral movements of all time, anticipating as it does the coming of Christ.

Ed King

December 2012


Further reading:

Scratch Messiah http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scratch_Messiah

The Really Big Chorus. http://new.trbc.co.uk/wp/?page_id=3265

Handel Messiah. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messiah_%28Handel%29

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