It took just 24 days to compose.
Mozart paid it the ultimate compliment by rewriting it his way, complete with clarinets and French horns.
And while it has become the prime musical staple of the Christmas season, most of the work is a commentary on the death and resurrection of Jesus, not on the circumstances of his birth.
I refer, of course, to Messiah, the much-loved oratorio composed by George Frederick Handel in 1741 and premiered in Dublin, Ireland, in the spring of the following year.
While Messiah's first London performance was rather a flop, the work became popular almost immediately, receiving some 70 performances in Handel's lifetime alone.
This popularity has continued unabated, to the point that majestic interludes such as "And the Glory of the Lord," "For Unto Us a Child Is Born," "And He Shall Purify," "Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs," "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth," and -- of course -- the magnificent "Hallelujah" define the musical essence of Christmas.
Columbians are fortunate to have one of Maryland's grandest Messiah traditions in their back yard. At 7:30 p.m. Sunday, the oratorio will ring out at Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School, courtesy of Frances Motyca Dawson, the singers of her Pro Cantare chorus and an orchestra of some of the area's finest musicians.
Joining forces with them for Part I of Messiah -- the so-called Christmas portion -- and excerpts from Parts II and III will be Amy Van Roekel, a finalist in the Metropolitan Opera's National Council Competition, mezzo-soprano Rosa Maria Pascarella, Metropolitan Opera tenor Mark Schowalter and baritone Lester Lynch of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
As an added attraction, Eileen Soskin of the faculty at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory, will speak on the oratorio from 6:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.
The excerpted version favored by Pro Cantare points to Messiah's tremendous adaptability, which, no doubt, contributes to the oratorio's endless appeal.
Handel was forever revising his masterpiece, and it has been reworked by others, as well, including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. One is hard-pressed to think of another piece that exists in so many different formats and nondefinitive versions.
One also is hard-pressed to find another choral masterwork possessed of such an unerring unity of purpose and design. The grand sweep of Messiah's drama conveys the essence of Christian belief as no other work, with every note, phrase and harmony of Handel's magnificent choruses and solo arias coloring the tapestry of birth, death and resurrection in the most vivid shades imaginable.
"I did think I did see all heaven and the great God himself," the composer is reputed to have said of his 3 1/2 weeks at work on what became the best-loved choral work ever written.
Twenty-four days. Of all the miracles of Christmas, Messiah must surely be one of the most profound.
Over all music played and sung during this season of joy, he -- Handel -- shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah!
Tickets are $23 for adults, $20 for senior citizens and students; $25 and $22 at the door. This concert usually sells out, so advance ticket purchases are recommended: 301-854-0107 or 410-799-9321.