Nobody can ever sing — or practically even talk about — "All we like sheep have gone astray" from the Messiah without noticing that the words "We like sheep" are prominently accented, in a way that distracts from the actual meaning of the text.

My understanding was that Handel simply didn't notice the double meaning, because his English wasn't good enough; I'm pretty sure one of my choir directors said something like this at one point. However, when this recently came up in conversation with a friend of mine, he said he'd heard that Handel did it as an intentional joke. Is there any surviving evidence that could be used to determine which of these explanations is true?

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    I'm not sure who voted to close, but the reasons are silly. This question is clearly within the realm of music history and also narrow, limited, and specific enough to warrant a cogent answer supported by documentation. In other words, not opinion-based. That said, I wouldn't at all be surprised if those words were accented purely because he happened to be writing that section before dinner and lamb was on the menu for that evening. (f – jjmusicnotes Sep 12 '14 at 4:30
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    I don't have a problem with the question being here, but to me it's an even better fit for the Music Fans SE. It is currently in the commitment phase, sign up at area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/61574/music-fans. – Meaningful Username Sep 12 '14 at 7:51
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    This has been a joke probably since forever (excluding Handel). I recall my choral friends (1970) in high school singing "We all like sheep..." with loads of teenage giggling. – Carl Witthoft Sep 12 '14 at 11:44

My music history professor stated flat out that Handel's English text setting was just plain bad because of his poor understanding of the language, and this was his Exhibit A. There is also the Golf Song: "FORE! Unto us a child is born!"

I think he could have done better: "All WE, like SHEEP, like SHEEP have gone astray" but that's just my opinion. Perhaps he liked the tune too much to change it to suit the words.

I wondered whether the word "like" had a slightly different meaning back then (back when "to want" meant "to lack", not "to desire") so I looked it up in Johnson's Dictionary of 1755. It had the same meanings as now, with quotes from Shakespeare and Dryden. Some people liked the city and some liked the country; some liked horses and some liked sheep.

So how do you figure out whether Handel did it as a joke?

As far as I know, Handel and Bach and their contemporaries simply did not put jokes into sacred works. Handel, as composer for the King, more likely had the conservative attitudes of Samuel Johnson than the radicalism of John Wilkes or Benjamin Franklin.

I would look for evidence in all the rest of Handel's religious works. If you can find anything else in any setting of Biblical text that seems to have been put in as a joke, then there is a possibility that the sheep thing is a joke, but I don't think you'll find anything. For that matter I can't think of a single joke in any sacred music by Joseph Haydn, and Haydn's time, though only a couple of decades later, was much more liberal, and Haydn loved his musical jokes.

  • There's no double meaning here, but Handel's settings of some of the plagues in "Israel in Egypt" are somewhat light-hearted and humorous-sounding (considering they're supposed to be plagues). Ex: "Their land brought forth frogs" and "He spake the word" (and there came all manner of flies). – Caleb Hines Sep 12 '14 at 3:52
  • In Romain Rolland's biography, Handel is described as "pince-sans-rire" which means given to poker-faced humour. I seem to recall an episode recounted where he was sat at the back and explained to colleagues that this was because he was so bad at the violin. Admittedly in his early years. – Andrew Spencer Sep 12 '14 at 10:20
  • I'm not sure that Samuel Johnson is the best example to use, since his dictionary contains several well-known joke entries. – David Richerby Sep 12 '14 at 12:24
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    But never a joke entry about the Bible, God, Jesus or any other sacred matter. The conservative establishment took religion extremely seriously. A joke in a secular Handel opera would not be out of place. A pun in a sacred work, like F# instead of F on the word "cross" (kreutz: sharp, cross) is fine; Bach did it all the time. But that's an erudite pun, not a silly pun. – Mark Lutton Sep 12 '14 at 19:43

I want to correct some misinformation contained in the top voted answer. The claim that this is a result of Handel poorly understanding English is pure nonsense; with regard to the (valid) complaint about the placement of stress in "For unto us a child is born," the music was almost directly lifted from an earlier duet of Handel: "Nò, di voi non vo' fidarmi." The initial stress makes PERFECT sense for this Italian text ("NO...I do not want to trust you, blind love, cruel beauty...") Take a listen here:

(I actually was somewhat shocked when I heard this for the first time and realized just how little Handel changed - though he added the defining homophonic chords on "Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God...etc.")

Oh, and if you stick around for the ending Allegro portion...it's "All we like sheep"! Again, almost directly lifted from the duet. It should say something that these two choruses are the ones that draw attention for their inappropriateness. It seems when Handel makes a stronger effort, things turn out quite well (remember that he composed this in about four weeks...will we begrudge him this?)

I think this should settle the question of why the text/music match here seems strange. However, the question of whether "All we like sheep" ought to be set to a more somber tune is a valid one. In the first place, it seems like Baroque (and early Classical) composers did not follow the "playful = fast and major, serious = slow and minor" rule quite as extensively as perhaps we assume they did. I know that Robert Levin makes this argument in justification of portions of his completion of Mozart's Great Mass in C minor, where critics make a similar "this text is too serious to be set to music like this" claim.

In the second place, I think everything else about Messiah should dissuade you from the opinion that Handel is just "trying to make a joke." I think that this choice was very intentional. The apparent disparity between the lively music and the dire text only serves to emphasize that "all we like sheep have gone astray," and "every one [has turned] to his own way." It stresses not only that sinners are flippant about God's law, but we are flippant about being flippant (i.e. we know we sin but still enjoy/do it). The aimless melismas and the opposite directions on "have gone astra-a-a-a-a-y" certainly emphasize the text in another fine example of Handel's word painting.

In short, you can't really claim in one place that Handel exemplifies good word painting ("Ev'ry valley" is the go-to example) and then turn around and say that these two choruses are poorly set because Handel "had a bad grasp of English." I don't think Handel was a native Italian speaker either and "Nò, di voi non vo' fidarmi" has that initial stress for all the right reasons. Sorry to make this so long, but the facts of this matter would be easily discovered by someone who took 5 minutes to read about these two choruses instead of just supplying their opinion.

  • +1. I just saw this answer, but it deserves to be the selected answer. I never knew about this precursor to those specific choruses. And you're absolutely on-point about the deliberate flippancy of "All We Like Sheep". – Caleb Hines Mar 1 '17 at 3:00

I cannot say whether there are documents that address whether Handel thought of a double meaning in his setting of this text. The accent on the word "we" does seem a bit strange. Like you, I've heard the story that Handel's grasp of the finer points of English pronunciation may have been slightly lacking (after all he was raised in Germany, and studied in Italy), though I don't know how true it is. However, granting this possibility, I do think that his setting of the text serves a deliberate dramatic purpose.

Handel, like many other Baroque composers, viewed composition as a rhetorical device, whose goal, like other rhetorical devices, was to illuminate and bring meaning to the text. Throughout all of Messiah (and indeed, in Handel's other oratorios) you can see this kind of text/music interplay going on. From this particular movement, you can see examples in the almost-random disjointed scales of "have gone astray", and the rapidly-turning figures in "we have turned".

The larger theological subtext behind all of this straying and turning, which Handel is no doubt highlighting, is that we are enjoying ourselves in rebellion, as carefree and ignorant as sheep. The Bible admits that sin seems pleasurable, and "there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death." This is the main contrast of the piece, because after all of our blithe frolicking, we come to the somber conclusion of the piece, which does an emotional 180: "the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all."

Thus, perhaps he is accenting the word we to contrast it with the final him.

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    The problem is not that "we" is accented, which is almost certainly intentional; it's that "like" is nearly as strong. Try singing "For God loves me" to the same notes: it fits perfectly. – Mark Lutton Sep 12 '14 at 2:54

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