G. F. Handel's 'He Was Despised': A Formal Analysis

by Amy Brewitt

George Frederic Handel's oratorio Messiah is one of Western music's best-known works. While Messiah's most recognizable component may be the Hallelujah Chorus, there are many other remarkable pieces within the work. One example is the alto aria He Was Despised. This essay will examine harmonic and formal analysis within the piece, focusing on the da capo form of the aria and the function of the ritornello within it, and Schenkerian theory, as well as discussion about compositional techniques and the aria's relation to other pieces within Messiah.

Messiah was composed in 1741 in London, England, and is based on a libretto by Charles Jennens. He Was Despised, the first solo in Part 2 of Messiah, is based on text from the Old Testament: Isaiah 53, 53: 50, 6. The text reads as follows:

He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief/ He gave his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: He hid not his face from shame and spitting.1

Click to hear He Was Despised. (MIDI 34Kb)

A formal analysis of He Was Despised can be found below. It is included here in order for the reader to clearly understand the references to sections that will be made throughout this essay.

The tonal structure of He Was Despised follows a standard plan. The A section is in E-flat major, the B sections moves from C minor to G minor, and the da capo returns to the tonic. It is the only example of a proper da capo aria in Messiah.

He Was Despised is a textbook example of a da capo aria. It has its definitive A-B-A form, with each section clearly defined. The A section, mm. 1- 49, adheres to what by the 1730s and 40s had become standard practice. In his article in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Julian Budden explains that by that part of the 18th century, the A section of a da capo aria had been expanded in length. He says that while the amount of original A-section text remained the same (no words were added, but they were repeated), it "tended to dissolve into the music."2 Thus, while the first statement of lyrics in the A section was meant to accentuate the lyrics themselves, the repetition of the lyrics later in the A section (that section which will henceforth be referred to as A1), enabled Handel to present a more elaborate musical expression of them. The subsequent statements of the lyrics in A1, as Budden argues, were essentially a "coda-like appendage to the main statement, with music that is an extension or reinforcement of the new key or the return to the original one."3 The A section of He Was Despised contains this "coda-like appendage" but this section is longer than the first part of the A section in which the lyrics are introduced. After a brief recurrence of the ritornello in mm.21-24, A1 begins in F minor (ii of E-flat major) and returns to E-flat major with a perfect authentic cadence at m.33. A1 continues, with a brief excursion away from the tonic, only to reinforce it with another perfect authentic cadence at m.39. A brief restatement of the lyrics "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief" concludes the A1 section at m.43 with yet another perfect authentic cadence. The three perfect authentic cadences in the second half of the A section, at mm. 33, 39, and 43, respectively, help to confirm the major key thereby setting up more dramatic contrast when section B begins in C minor.

Julian Budden explains that while the da capo form is typically expressed in three-part A-B-A form, it is more useful and accurate to see it in five-part form, as A-A1-B-A-A1. When the ritornello sections are added, the structure becomes r-A-r-A1-r-B-r-A-r-A1-r, with the ritornello rounding out the form.4 Essentially, the form is still in three parts; r-A-r-A1-r represents the A section, the B section stands on its own, and the second r-A-r-A1-r, the exact same as the first occurrence because it is a da capo aria, represents the second A of the three-part form.

The ritornello serves many important functions within this da capo aria. As one may observe by looking at the formal analysis above, the ritornello recurs six times. This recurrence begs the question: Why does the ritornello need to come back each time?

In order to answer this question adequately, one must examine each occurrence of the ritornello. The first time it occurs (mm.1-8), it functions as the introduction to the entire aria, setting up the tonal and rhythmic basis for the piece as well as establishing its mood. As an introduction, it sums up what the listener will shortly hear in longer form. The second time it occurs, it appears in a shorter form (mm.21-24). It functions as a transition between A and A1. The third time it appears (mm.43-49), it is in a varied form, though mm.47-49 consist of the same material as mm. 6-8 of the opening ritornello. This time, however, although it also establishes E flat as the tonal centre, it is establishing it in contrast to what is about to occur. It confirms a key that will very shortly be upstaged by its relative minor, providing dramatic contrast. When the ritornello occurs for the fourth time, it comes back in its introductory form, because the aria is in da capo form. As opposed to The Trumpet Shall Sound, where the opening ritornello does not return, in He Was Despised it comes back in its original form. However, instead of functioning as an introduction this time, it functions again as a contrast to the B section that has just ended, and also to re-establish the tonic. The fifth occurrence of the ritornello functions the same as the second, as a transition between A and A1. In its sixth and final occurrence, the ritornello reaffirms the tonic and functions as the closing of the piece. Hence, while each statement of the ritornello comes back in varied forms, except for the first and the last, each time it comes back it is fulfilling a different function within the piece. It can be said then, that the ritornello is indeed instrumental, both in its composition and in terms of how it functions dramatically and musically throughout the piece.

In contrast to the ritornello, the A, A1, and B sections contain text, which distinguishes these parts even more from the instrumental ritornello. In order to provide contrast within the da capo aria, the composer must make the sections convey their importance. Scholar Donald Burrows has described He Was Despised as a "text-led" movement, which aims to accentuate the emotional message of the text as powerfully as possible.5 Edward Synge, Bishop of Elphin and attendee at many of Handel's Dublin performances of Messiah believed that Handel was successful in that aim. He wrote of the importance of the rhetorical handling of the subject matter: "the words are all Sublime, or affecting to the greatest degree." 6 Handel achieves the accentuation of the "sublime" meaning of the text by using different techniques, including word painting and especially through descending motives. In the first section, the text is sung in a slow, wistful manner. Handel uses word painting to accentuate the words he really wants to bring out. An excellent example of word painting in He Was Despised is employed with the word "grief". In m.18, the word "grief" is sung for the first time in the aria. Handel injects a "minor" note into the major key when "grief" is sung on a G flat. The G flat, which has not yet occurred in the vocal line, 7 is set up by the phrase "a man of sorrows" repeated twice. When the G flat, the only non-key accidental in the entire A section, finally does occur in m. 18 on the word "grief", its arrival is more dramatic because of the phrase repetition before it. It darkens the tone of the music, providing dramatic contrast between the section as a whole, in E flat major, and the word "grief", which is the dramatic climax of the text. Handel employs this technique again in m. 31, when "grief" begins on a C flat, heightening the dramatic flavour of the A1 section, which has begun in the key of F minor. The G flat occurs again here, this time on the second syllable of the word "acquainted", and is arguably used to provide a musical link to the earlier use of the word "grief" on which the G flat previously occurred. While the word "grief" occurs seven times throughout the A section, its drama is highlighted by the "minor" note only when there is material after it; when it is not functioning as a cadence point or as a preparation for one, as in mm. 21, 33, 38, 39, and 42 respectively.

The use of descending motives, which occur within the ritornello and within the voice part, as Jens Peter Larsen argues in his book Handel's Messiah: Origins, Composition, Sources, also add to the expressive feel of the piece. 8 The first instance of a descending motif occurs in the ritornello with the "Sigh motives" (which Handel also employed in the "Dead March" in his oratorio Saul), which find their vocal counterpart on the words "despised" and "rejected" in mm.33 and 34 respectively. A longer descending motive occurs in the voice part in m. 15 with the words "a man of sorrows", where the descending motive happens on the word "sorrows". The descending motives express a feeling of anguish, which is exactly what the text calls for the composer to convey. Jan Swafford argues that Messiah demonstrates that though "Handel had a smaller bag of [compositional] tricks than Bach…he used those tricks with unfailing brilliance and effectiveness." 9 Swafford also writes that "it is easy to be cynical at [Handel's] manipulations. When hearing them, however, few people with hearts connected to their ears can fail to be moved." 10 Since both word painting and descending motives are used in this piece to evoke emotion, Handel certainly succeeded to that end.

While it is obvious that in da capo form the A and B sections must be different from one another, they also must relate to one another in some way in which it makes sense for them to belong in the same piece. While there are no melodically motivic features that relate the A and B parts of He Was Despised, they indeed are related in four ways. The first point of relation is that they are both texted and that the text comes from the same passage of the same source. The second point of relation is that the B section begins in C minor, which is the relative minor of the key in which the piece started. Thirdly, the two sections are motivically related by note values. Handel employs the same note values in each section, with frequent use of eighth and sixteenth notes, with the occasional dotted eighth or half note. The fourth point in which they relate, in terms of the functions of sections in da capo arias, is that they provide contrasting material to one another. Thus, the relations of the sections to one another is more importantly their difference rather than their sameness, and it is this fourth point of relation upon which the focus will be.

The main contrasts between the two sections are quite apparent. While the vocal line in section A is slower and is accompanied by a more mellow orchestral section, section B picks up the pace (see the contrast compared to The Trumpet Shall Sound) and has a more rhythmic accompaniment. Section A is in a major key, section B is in a minor key. Section A is accompanied by longer, more sustained notes with melodic features such as the Schenkerian descending third and fifth progressions, while section B is characterized by quick, dotted rhythms which have a much more blatant harmonic intent, exemplified by block chords and no melodic features.

The components of section A have been discussed above, so the focus here will be on the B section and how it is different from the A section. The B section, from mm. 50-67, as Richard Luckett says, is highlighted by the "unrelenting dotted rhythm of the strings' accompaniment and the snatched phrases of the vocal line," 11 in contrast to the more expressive vocal line of the A section, which is "constantly semi-echoed instrumentally." 12 The B section, Luckett explains, has the feeling of accompanied recitative. 13 Indeed, as Larsen argues, the B section has a "decided increase in tension, caused by the transition from gliding quaver movement to insistent dotted sixteenth-notes rhythm." 14 Therefore, this section follows the general rules of da capo aria: it is stated only once and is in a contrasting key or style, with the accompaniment appearing in a reduced form, 15 in this case, with less texture. As Budden suggests, the B section often moves through different, but related keys, "often ending in the minor or on a phrygian cadence preparing for a return to the tonic key and the introductory ritornello." 16 In the case of He Was Despised, the B section ends on a G-minor chord, the dominant of the relative minor of the original key of the piece. By ending the B section on a G-minor chord, that sets up the repeat of the opening ritornello, which will end with the third-progression from G to E flat. In Schenkerian terms then, one might say that the ending of the B section on a G minor chord is essentially the beginning of a prolongation of the E-flat major that ends the opening ritornello before the voice repeats the A section.

As Larsen argues, the text of the A section "expresses the intense feeling of the pain of desertion and loneliness, the lot of the rejected," 17 while the text of the B section "depicts details of the violence suffered." 18 Therefore, the contrast between these two sections occurs not only because Handel composed it that way, but also because the text itself lends to the contrast.

Turning attention from the discussion of form, He Was Despised is interesting in terms of music theory. The essence of Schenkerian analysis, based on the theories of Heinrich Schenker, lies in the uncovering of simpler harmonic progressions and prolongations underlining the structure of a piece. The Schenkerian concepts of progression and prolongation are applicable to this aria. The ritornello in He Was Despised is based on what Schenker would call a "fifth progression", which begins and ends with notes from the same chord, and the notes in between join those bookend notes into a coherent harmonic pattern. Leading from a B flat to E flat, the fifth progression leads into the vocal entry. This is a prolongation of the E flat major chord. Although, it is more likely that is it a descent from 3 (the third note of the scale) rather than from 5 (the fifth note of the scale). As evidence of this, one need only examine the harmonic accompaniment and see that what appears to be the 5 is harmonized by an A flat, the IV of E-flat major, and the 3 is harmonized by B flat, the V of E-flat major. Thus, what at first sight appears to be a fifth progression indeed turns out to be a third progression in disguise.

The A section of the aria, the vocal part, however, appears to be based on a "fourth progression". Instead of leading from the B flat, as the ritornello does, the voice part repeatedly leads from an A flat to an E flat. Upon closer examination, however, it can be argued that this is not a fourth progression, because the A flat does not belong to the chord which is being prolonged. In fact, the case for the vocal part being a linear progression, a "third progression" from G to E flat with F as the passing note between them, is quite strong. The idea of the movement of the vocal line from G to E flat being a third progression makes sense when one considers that the ritornello is meant to introduce the vocal part, and the ritornello, as we have already established, contains a third progression on the same notes.


Figure 1 - Third Progression (mm.42-43)

In the B section of the aria, there are also linear progressions taking place. Another fifth progression occurs both times in which the words "to the smiters" appear. It is a progression from G to C, prolonging the harmony of the C-minor chord, which is the relative minor of E-flat major. The Schenkerian argument for this example being a true fifth progression is strong because the B section takes place in a minor key. In order to establish contrast between the A part that has just finished and the B part that has just begun, Handel uses the technique of prolongation to establish the new tonal centre of the B section. Interestingly, at the same time Handel is using the C minor prolongation to provide contrast to the previous section, he employs a rhythm in the accompaniment that establishes unity between previous and subsequent parts of Messiah by using a dotted rhythm.19

Formally and harmonically, He Was Despised is a wonderful stand-alone piece, but it is also interesting to consider it in terms of how it relates to other pieces within Messiah. If one were to examine the placement of the aria within a larger structure, one might be able to conclude that the aria is a smaller part of a larger idea, and that the aria itself is an example of the larger idea. In order to discuss this, it is necessary to look at the music that surrounds He Was Despised. As previously mentioned, He Was Despised is the first aria of the second section of Messiah. Preceding the aria is the chorus Behold the Lamb of God, and following the aria is another chorus, Surely he hath borne our griefs. These three pieces set up an A-B-A form in themselves: tutti-solo-tutti. Another contrast between the pieces is that of major and minor. The first chorus is in the key of G minor, and the second chorus occurs in the key of F minor, with the aria in the key of E flat major. Therefore, if we look at the bigger tonal structure which incorporates both choruses and the aria, we see that the form is A-B-A-B-A, where each A represents a minor key and each B represents a major key, the middle A representing the B section of He Was Despised. Therefore, one might conclude that the major key of the A section of He Was Despised' is intended to serve as contrast between the two choruses. Also, the concluding G minor chord of the B section of He Was Despised provides a link back to the preceding chorus.

As discussed above, there are certainly key-relationships between these three pieces within Messiah. As to whether or not these keys relate to others throughout the work, Richard Luckett takes up this issue in his book Handel's Messiah: A Celebration. He writes that "Messiah is not an oratorio a chiave, sustained by particular significances for given keys: it is constructed in blocks of keys, which establish their local centres, and work through these, rather than according to any overriding rules of reference." 20

G. F. Handel's He Was Despised from Messiah supports the fundamental ideas of structure, both in formal and Schenkerian terms. In studying this piece of music from both a formalistic and theoretical standpoint, one can see how it exemplifies definitions and theoretical ideas. We have seen how form, music theory, and compositional technique have all combined to result in a piece of music that is both emotionally moving and musically fascinating. In observing all of these aspects of He Was Despised, one may be left feeling overwhelmed with the details, both obvious and intricate. However, when one recalls that He Was Despised is but one piece in a large oratorio, one is left even more awestruck of the tremendous talent and intellect with which Handel composed. Charles Burney has said that He Was Despised "has impressed me with the highest idea of excellence in pathetic expression, of any English song with which I am acquainted." 21 He did not say whether or not any of those acquaintances involved grief.



1.Donald Burrows, Handel: Messiah, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 92. (back)

2.Julian Budden, "Aria", in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, (London: Macmillan Press, 2000), 892. (back)


4.Ibid., P.890.(back)

5.Donald Burrows, Handel: Messiah, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 61.(back)

6.Ruth Smith, Handel's Oratorios and 18th Century Thought, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 34.(back)

7.The G flat has, however, occurred in the accompaniment in m.6, an octave higher than the first G flat of the vocal line.(back)

8.Jens Peter Larsen, Handel's Messiah: Origins, Composition, Sources, (London: Adam and Charles Black, Ltd., 1957), 140.(back)

9.Jan Swafford, The Vintage Guide to Classical Music, (New York: Random House, Inc., 1992), 105.(back)

10.Ibid., p.107.(back)

11.Richard Luckett, Handel's Messiah: A Celebration, (New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1992), 87.(back)



14.Larsen, Handel's Messiah: Origins, Composition, Sources, 141.(back)

15.Budden, "Aria", in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 890.(back)


17.Larsen, Handel's Messiah: Origins, Composition, Sources, 141.(back)


19.The dotted rhythm idea (not the exact dotted rhythm as He Was Despised) occurs in other parts of the oratorio. For example, the chorus Behold the Lamb of God, which precedes He Was Despised. It occurs again in the del segno aria The Trumpet Shall Sound.(back)

20.Luckett, Handel's Messiah: A Celebration, 87.(back)



© Copyright 2001 by Amy Brewitt.