Enjoying Handel’s Messiah
Yesterday evening, as a family we attended a special presentation, Selections from Messiah on the campus of Bob Jones University. The orchestration was first class, the choir spectacular, the music full, wholesome, and wonderfully uplifting, and the audience spirited and appreciative.
Handel’s remarkable capability to pack biblical truth into a musical genre that is both elegant and yet robust enough to carry the powerful message of God’s holiness, righteousness, love and grace is both amazing and soul stirring. I was struck again by the majesty and beauty of the form, as well as the sheer weight and power of the words of Scripture.
Below, I’d like to share the program notes from the evening’s performance. Compiled by Heather McNeely, they convey some lesser-known aspects of the background to the writing and form of The Messiah.
PROGRAM NOTES TO
BOB JONES UNIVERSITY DIVISION OF MUSIC
COMBINED CHOIRS AND ORCHESTRA
SELECTIONS FROM MESSIAH
Perhaps no other work from the Western classical music tradition enjoys the widespread appeal, influence and instant recognition as the oratorio Messiah by George Frideric Handel. In all, Handel composed a total of 29 oratorios and, Messiah is among the five he wrote to librettos supplied by Charles Jennens. Jennens was a Christian, and scholars believe he fashioned the libretto of Messiah with the intention of curbing the spread of deist philosophy that had become so prevalent during the early decades of the Enlightenment. Of particular concern to Jennens was the deists’ rejection of Christ’s divinity and by extension, the inerrancy of Scripture and man’s need of salvation. Thus, by titling the work Messiah and selecting Scripture from both the Old and the New Testaments of the Bible, Jennens asserts not only the deity of Christ but also the unity and inerrancy of the scriptural text, promoting a singular message the Gospel of salvation through Christ alone.
Jennens divided the libretto into three parts. Part One pairs Old Testament Scriptures prophesying salvation through a Redeemer with those from the New Testament proclaiming Christ’s birth as the fulfillment of that prophecy. The prophet Isaiah’s promise of comfort and hope in a Redeemer who will make the “crooked straight” and “the rough places plain” (Isaiah 40: 1 -5) thus opens the work. Handel scored this portion as a recitative and aria for tenor solo. While not slow, the recitative “Comfort, comfort ye my people,” is stately, declamatory, and confidently reassuring. By contrast, the aria which follows is upbeat and virtuosic, with several instances of delightful word painting such as the intricate, extended melisma on the word “exalted.” Part One concludes with the most narrative portion of the oratorio: the triumphant announcement of Christ’s birth in Luke 2. In setting the text, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will toward men” from Luke 2:14, Handel masterfully alternated between two choirs, high and low voices, and homophonic and imitative textures.
Scriptures detailing the passion, death and resurrection of Christ occupy Part Two. Handel’s music to open this section is a simple yet weighty and incredibly emotional mezzo-soprano aria on the text from Isaiah 53:3: “He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Part Three begins thankfully with a proclamation of the redemption of the world through a living Savior: “I know that my redeemer liveth” (Job 19:25). Handel’s setting of I Corinthians 15:52, “the trumpet shall sound,” further showcases the composer as a master of variety for here he pairs a dignified baritone solo with a glorious and virluosic trumpet solo. The work concludes with Scriptures describing the spread of the Gospel and finally with sections from Revelation 5 detailing the future reign of Christ: “Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.” In the original score, Handel’s grand “Hallelujah Chorus” closes Part Two, ending the section by announcing the resurrection but in contemporary performance practice, it is commonly placed at the end of the entire oratorio. Surely neither Handel nor Jennens would question the appropriateness of underlining the final “Amen” of Revelation 5:14 with an unambiguous “Hallelujah!”
(Heather is a member of the Department of Instrumental Studies, Division of Music, at Bob Jones University)
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