Composed in London in three weeks in the late summer of 1741, George Frideric Handel’s Messiah is surely the most enduringly popular and widely known musical work shaped by the King James Bible. Most of its text consists of passages from the King James Bible. Only lines from the psalms are from a different source, the Book of Common Prayer, which incorporates Miles Coverdale’s translations from the 1539 Great Bible.
Handel’s librettist, Charles Jennens, often used lines from the King James Bible word for word, although he sometimes made small changes to fit the assembled passages together. The idea of a “Scripture Collection,” as Jennens modestly called it, was not unique to Messiah, but the concept reached new heights in the oratorio’s complex narrative, which weaves together Old and New Testament texts.
Eighteenth-century audience members bought word books like the one shown here to read Jennens’s libretto; one clergyman preached 50 sermons on it. Today, Messiah performances are a ubiquitous tradition in the United States and other countries, offering an annual, full-throated exposure to the language of the King James Bible with all the energy of live performance.
- Thus Saith the Lord (Recitative, 1:19)
- O Thou that Tellest Good Tidings to Zion (Song and chorus, 4:57)
- Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion (Song, 4:07)
- For Unto Us a Child is Born (Chorus, 3:47)
- Hallelujah (Chorus, 3:26)
- Worthy is the Lamb (Chorus, 7:32)
Live audio recording from performances by the Folger Consort and the Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford, at the National Building Museum, Washington, DC, December 20, 21, and 22, 1993.