Music History

Mr. Handel’s unintentional Christmas Songs

George Friedrich Handel wrote two pieces that are sung so often this season and are beloved, but….weren’t intended as Christmas music.

The first one is the hymn “Joy to the World”. Handel didn’t write the words, the great hymnwriter Isaac Watts did. But the hymn doesn’t mention the birth of Jesus specifically, Christmas, or any of it. Why? Because it wasn’t originally intended to be a Christmas hymn. Watts wrote many Psalm paraphrases, or taking the psalm words and phrasing them metrically to fit for a hymn. This is one of those. The closest “Christmasy” part to the hymn is the first verse. But I love using this tune with students, because it’s such a wonderful melody to talk about steps, scales, thirds, fifths and octaves, because it is a descending major scale on the first line, then leaping up a third and moving by a step.

The second one is the “Hallelujah Chorus”. It too, to is not a Christmas piece. So why do we sing it at Christmas? Awesome question. When Handel wrote it, it was part of the Easter section of the Messiah. He wrote two main parts. Christmas and Easter. About 70 years after it was written, it became a Christmas staple…due to Americans. The Handel and Haydn society was a performing group in Boston. In 1818, on Christmas Day, they gave a concert of excerpts from “The Messiah”. And it was such a beloved event that it became tradition. And tradition is hard to break, even when you don’t really know why you do it! If we dig into the theology of it, it works, because Christmas is connected to Easter. If Jesus wasn’t born, he couldn’t have lived and died and rose again to save the world from their sins!

So there you go. Two musical selections, initially intended for non Christmas purposes, now sung by so many every Christmas season. And now you know! I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Handel pieces ACTUALLY written for Christmas!

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