Program Notes | Handel’s Messiah

Handel’s Messiah
By Laurie Shulman ©2023

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Nicholas McGegan conductor 
Sherezade Panthaki soprano
Key’mon W. Murrah countertenor
Thomas Cooley tenor
Tyler Duncan baritone
Montclair State University Singers | Heather J. Buchanan, director
New Jersey Symphony

Handel Messiah
    Part I


    Part II
    Part III

George Friderich Handel: Messiah

Handel was a survivor. Time and again he reinvented himself, took advantage of current events to further his career and adapted his music to adjust to changing performance circumstances. After he shifted his focus away from Italian opera in favor of English language oratorios in the late 1730s, he found astounding variety in Biblical texts. In one major work after another – Saul, Israel in Egypt, Samson, Judas Maccabaeus, Belshazzar, Susanna – he zeroed in on the dramatic potential of Biblical stories. In the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha, he found characters and relationships as compelling as those of the gods and heroes who populated his opera libretti.

In fact there was not so much difference in the basic themes that Handel had addressed in his operas: death, wealth, beauty, love, contemplation of the devil, pursuit of a virtuous life and the preservation of one’s soul. Oratorio gave him free rein to pursue these ideas through the same musical vehicles of arias, duets, and choruses. He simply did so without costumes or staging. Most important, presenting his music in the English vernacular gave him the opportunity to expand his audience exponentially. Outside Italy, Italian opera was the province of the wealthy few. Sacred oratorio belonged to everyone and had the advantage of being performed in a language everyone spoke.

Handel also composed a substantial amount of English church music, including anthems and hymns, as well as some Latin liturgical settings. Among his choral works, he remains best loved for his oratorios, above all Messiah. Its global popularity has placed it in a league of familiarity occupied by only a few classical works. Messiah keeps company with Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Ravel’s Boléro, and Copland’s Appalachian Spring. The fact that Handel and his librettist Charles Jennens succeeded in doing so with a sacred work adds to the unique qualities of this beloved oratorio.

Extended Notes and Artist Bios

George Friderich Handel: Messiah

George Friderich Handel
Born: February 23, 1685, in Halle, Germany
Died: April 14, 1759, in London, England
Composed: Handel composed his most famous oratorio in a period of 24 days from late August to mid-September 1741 in London.
World Premiere: April 13, 1742, in Dublin, Ireland.
New Jersey Symphony Premiere: 1976–77 season with the Westminster Symphonic Choir; John Nelson conducted.
Duration: 2 hours 30 minutes, including intermission
Instrumentation: oboes, bassoon, trumpets, strings, harpischord, organ continuo, vocal soloists and mixed chorus


Sinfonia (Overture) 

Accompagnato (Tenor) 

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:1–3) 

Air (Tenor) 

Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.
(Isaiah 40:4) 


And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. 

(Isaiah 40:5) 

Accompagnato (Baritone) 

Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts: Yet once a little while and I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations; and the desire of all nations shall come. (Haggai 2:6–7) 

The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple, even the messenger of the Covenant, whom you delight in; behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of hosts.
(Malachi 3:1)

Air (Countertenor) 

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) 


And He shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.
(Malachi 3:3) 

Recitative (Countertenor) 

Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Emmanuel, God with us.
(Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23) 

Air and Chorus (Countertenor) 

O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain.
O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, behold your God! 

(Isaiah 40:9) 

Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. (Isaiah 60:1) 

Accompagnato (Baritone) 

For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising. 
(Isaiah 60:2–3) 

Air (Baritone) 

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) 


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, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. 

(Isaiah 9:6) 

Pifa (Pastoral Symphony) 

Recitative (Soprano) 

There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.
(Luke 2:8) 

Arioso (Soprano) 

And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. 

(Luke 2:9) 

Recitative (Soprano) 

And the angel said unto them: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10–11) 

Accompagnato (Soprano) 

And suddenly there was with the angel, a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying:
(Luke 2:13) 


Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will towards men.
(Luke 2:14) 

Air (Soprano) 

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, thy King cometh unto thee; He is the righteous Savior, and He shall speak peace unto the heathen.
(Zecharaiah 9:9–10) 

Recitative (Countertenor) 

Then shall the eyes of the blind be open’d, and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing. 

(Isaiah 35:5–6) 

Duet (Countertenor and Soprano) 

He shall feed His flock like a shepherd; and He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. (Isaiah 40:11) 

Come unto Him, all ye that labor, come unto Him that are heavy laden, and He will give you rest. Take his yoke upon you, and learn of Him, for He is meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls. 

(Matthew 11:28–29) 


His yoke is easy, and His burden is light. 

(Matthew 11:30)






Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.
(John 1:29) 

Air (Countertenor) 

He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
(Isaiah 53:3) 

He gave His back to the smiters, and
His cheeks to them that plucked off His hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting.
(Isaiah 50:6) 


Surely He hath borne our griefs. 

And with his stripes. 

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way. And the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

(Isaiah 53:4–6)

Recitative (Tenor) 

All they that see Him. 
(Psalms 22:8) 


He trusted in God. 
(Psalms 22:9) 

Air (Baritone) 

Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord, and against His anointed. (Psalm 2:1–2) 

Recitative (Tenor)

He that dwelleth in Heaven. 
(Psalms 2:4,9)

Air (Tenor) 

Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. (Psalm 2:9) 


Hallelujah: for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth. (Revelation 19:6) 

The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign for ever and ever. (Revelation 11:15) 

King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. 

(Revelation 19:16) 




I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. 

(Job 19:25–26) 

For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.
(I Corinthians 15:20) 


Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. 

(I Corinthians 15:21–22) 

Accompagnato (Baritone) 

Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. 

(I Corinthians 15:51–52) 

Air (Baritone) 

The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
(I Corinthians 15:52) 


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 honor, and glory, and blessing. Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever. Amen.
(Revelation 5:12–14)

Artist Bio: Nicholas McGegan, conductor

An “expert in 18th-century style” (The New Yorker), Nicholas McGegan is in his sixth decade on the podium. Following a 34-year tenure as music director of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, he is now Music Director Laureate. He is also Principal Guest Conductor of Hungary’s Capella Savaria.

McGegan’s approach — intelligent, infused with joy, and never dogmatic — has led to engagements with many of the world’s major orchestras, including those of Cleveland, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Sydney, London’s Royal Opera House and the Royal Concertgebouw; regular collaborations with choreographer Mark Morris; and appearances at the BBC Proms and the Edinburgh International Festival.

His extensive discography includes more than 100 releases spanning five decades, including more than 40 with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, and more than 20 with Capella Savaria. McGegan’s recordings have garnered two Gramophone Awards and two Grammy Award nominations.

He was made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) “for services to music overseas.” McGegan is committed to the next generation of musicians, frequently conducting and coaching students in regular engagements at Yale, Juilliard, Harvard, the Colburn School, Aspen Music Festival, and more.

Artist Bio: Sherezade Panthaki, soprano

Sherezade Panthaki, soprano, enjoys ongoing international collaborations with conductors Nicholas McGegan, Masaaki Suzuki, Mark Morris and more. Recent engagements include early music and oratorio performances with the New York Philharmonic, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Bach Collegium Japan, Wiener Akademie (Austria), NDR Hannover Radiophilharmonie (Germany), the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Boston Early Music Festival and the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra (Canada).

Born and raised in India, Ms. Panthaki holds graduate degrees from the Yale School of Music and the University of Illinois. She is a founding member of the Kaleidoscope Vocal Ensemble, celebrating racial and ethnic diversity in performances and educational programs of early and new music. Ms. Panthaki is a renowned clinician, has taught voice at Yale University, and currently heads the Vocal program at Mount Holyoke College.

Artist Bio: Key’mon W. Murrah, countertenor

Key’mon W. Murrah, a countertenor heralded for his wide range and “hot coals-core of tone,” is a native to Louisville, Kentucky. In 2020, he was heard on the stage of The Metropolitan Opera as a semi-finalist in the company’s National Council Auditions after winning the Nashville District Auditions.

Murrah has been heard with University of Kentucky Opera Theatre and Bluegrass Opera in performances of Die Fledermaus, Die Zauberflöte, Tales of Hoffman and La Bohéme.

His most notable roles are Mingo in Porgy and Bess and creating the role of the Spiritual Man in Ernst Bacon’s A Tree on the Plains, and has sung the role of Tolomeo from Handel’s Giulio Cesare with Red River Lyric Opera and Asprano in Vivaldi’s Montezuma with America Baroque Opera Company. Murrah was recently featured in a masterclass with Joyce DiDonato in for Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute and continued his studies at the International Vocal Arts Institute.

In 2009, Murrah received the Second Place Undergraduate Award at The Alltech Vocal Competition, and in 2010, he won the second-place award at the National Association of Negro Musicians and Bellarmine’s University’s “Traditional Negro Spiritual’ Voice Competition. In 2014, Murrah was a finalist in the Juanita Peterson Vocal Competition, won 2nd place at the Emerging Soloists Competition, and was a finalist in the Opera MODO Opera Competition.

Recently, Murrah toured with the American Spiritual Ensemble and in the summer of 2020, he was a young artist with the Glimmerglass Opera Festival.

Artist Bio: Thomas Cooley, tenor

Praised by The New York Times for his “sweet, penetrating lyric tenor with aching sensitivity,” and by San Francisco Classical Voice as “an indomitable musical force,” Thomas Cooley is a singer of great versatility, expressiveness, and virtuosity. Internationally in-demand for a wide range of repertoire in concert, opera, and chamber music, Cooley performs regularly with major orchestras and Baroque ensembles worldwide.

Mr. Cooley is known particularly as an interpreter of the works of Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven and Britten. He returns as the tenor soloist at the Carmel Bach Festival for his twelfth season in 2023, and was Artist-in-Residence for Music of the Baroque from 2015 to 2016. Of his Evangelist with Jane Glover, the Chicago Tribune wrote that he was “an ideal Evangelist, firm of voice and commanding of expression.”

Important recent engagements include the role of Gimoaldo in Rodelinda at the Göttingen Handel Festspiele, Telemann’s Der Tag des Gerichts in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam; a recording of the Evangelist in the Johannes-Passion with Nicholas McGegan and the Cantata Collective; Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with the New York Philharmonic and Phoenix Symphony; Handel’s Theodora with Philharmonia Baroque; Britten’s War Requiem in Carnegie Hall and portraying Acis in Acis and Galateawith the Mark Morris Dance Group. A program of Handel arias and duets entitled “As Steals the Morn” with San Francisco’s Voices of Music was selected as the best Early/Baroque performance in the Bay Area in 2019, a selection from which has received nearly two million views on YouTube.

Artist Bio: Tyler Duncan, baritone

Canadian baritone Tyler Duncan has performed at the Metropolitan Opera as Prince Yamadori in Madama Butterfly and the Journalist in Berg’s Lulu and Fiorello. Other roles include Mr. Friendly in the 18th-century ballad opera Flora, and Speaker in Die Zauberflöte (Spoleto Festival USA), Dandini in La Cenerentola (Pacific Opera Victoria), Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Princeton Festival) and Raymondo, Almira and Adonis in John Blow’s Venus and Adonis (Boston Early Music Festival).

Concerts include Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 with the American Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Symphony, Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ with the Montreal Symphony; both Bach and Mendelssohn’s Magnificat with the New York Philharmonic; St. Matthew Passion with the Munich Bach Choir, Montreal Symphony and the Oregon Bach Festival; Haydn’s Creation with the Québec, Montreal and Winnipeg Symphony Orchestras; Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with the Calgary Philharmonic and Philharmonie der Nationen in Munich, Berlin, Stuttgart and Frankfurt; Haydn’s The Seasons with the Calgary Philharmonic; Handel’s Messiah with Tafelmusik, among others; Mozart’s Requiem with the Montreal, Toronto and Salt Lake City Symphony Orchestras.

Frequently partnered by pianist Erika Switzer, Duncan has given recitals in New York, Boston and Paris and throughout Canada, Germany, Sweden, France and South Africa. He has received prizes from the Naumburg, London’s Wigmore Hall and Munich’s ARD competitions and won the 2010 Joy in Singing competition, 2008 New York Oratorio Society Competition, 2007 Prix International Pro Musicis Award and Bernard Diamant Prize from the Canada Council
for the Arts. He holds music degrees from the University of British Columbia, Germany’s Hochschule für Musik (Augsburg) and Hochschule für Musik und Theater (Munich). He is a founding member on the faculty of the Vancouver International Song Institute.

Artist Bio: Montclair State University Singers | Heather J. Buchanan, director

Since September 2003, the Montclair State University choral program has been led by Australian-born conductor Heather J. Buchanan. Montclair choirs perform masterworks regularly with the New Jersey Symphony and have additionally collaborated with internationally acclaimed artists and ensembles including Meredith Monk, Richard Alston Dance Company (UK) and VOCES8. Previous University Singers performances with the New Jersey Symphony include Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. (Lacombe), Mozart’s Requiem (Lacombe and Zhang), the US premiere of Speak Out (Zhang), and Handel’s Messiah annually since 2014.

Montclair State University is a research doctoral institution ranked in the top tier of national universities, with 11 colleges/schools serving more than 23,000 undergraduate and graduate students. At Montclair’s John J. Cali School of Music, students’ study with a world-class faculty drawn from the finest musicians and scholars in the New York metropolitan area and beyond. Under the direction of Heather J. Buchanan, professor of music and director of choral activities, the choral program has won critical acclaim for its innovative programming and successful collaborations. Buchanan holds degrees from the University of New England (Australia), Westminster choir College of rider University (USA), and the Queensland Conservatorium at Griffith University (Australia) and is a Licensed Body Mapping Educator. She is in demand as a guest conductor, somatic educator and choral clinician in the US and abroad. Pianist Steven W. Ryan accompanies the Montclair choirs.