IT IS difficult to avoid a performance of George Frideric Handel’s oratorio Messiah at Christmas. This masterpiece is such a part of the national heritage that having the festive season without at least the first part in your area is unusual.
Messiah deserves to be at the top of the charts. The music is of the highest quality, with a good mixture of style and pace, of ebullience and seriousness, and with a deft dramatic hand at work (Handel was first and foremost a composer of opera).
Oratorio and opera are two sides of a coin: opera is the secular side, and oratorio the sacred. In the Baroque period, they both had parts for soloists, and increasingly for instruments, and both were essentially dramatic, involving the retelling of a narrative. Unlike opera, oratorios could be performed even when the theatres were closed (during Holy Week, for example).
Composers and librettists took as their subjects the great characters of the Old Testament, or the lives of the saints. It is unusual, therefore, that Messiah is concerned with the promise of Christ’s birth, the events of his life, and his glorification in heaven.
Musical settings of Christ’s Passion had been heard regularly since the medieval period, but no oratorio, other than Messiah, deals with Christ’s life, nor proclaims its subject matter so boldly. The man who chose this sequence of Bible passages, formed them into a coherent structure and presented it to Handel, was Charles Jennens.
JENNENS was an unusual man. Born in about 1700 into a wealthy Midlands family, he grew up to be a shy, cultivated, and sometimes-irascible man, who became devoted to the arts. He also developed views that held him back from assuming a leading part in politics.
He was a non-juror (one who refused to support William of Orange and Mary’s appearance after the Glorious Revolution of 1688) and he was anti-Settlement, preferring the Stuart claims to the throne to those of the Hanoverians. As a result, preferment was denied him, and he spent his time editing Shakespeare and supporting Handel.
He was also worried by the rise of secularism, and the increasingly popular, anti-religious ideas of the Enlightenment, which sought to banish traditional Christian belief. He was most critical of the Deists, who believed (and still do) in the existence of God, but only as creator of the world, not as redeemer.
Jennens, secure in his traditional, Anglican, Bible-based beliefs, wanted to reassert God’s relationship with us all; and that seems to be the main impetus behind his assembling various texts into a libretto that became Messiah.
We know that it was Jennens himself who was the instigator of the project. He wrote on 10 July 1741:
Handel says he will do nothing next Winter, but I hope I shall persuade him to set another Scripture collection I have made for him. . . I hope he will lay out his whole Genius and Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah.
MESSIAH does not deal with narrative. There is no manger, no visit by the Wise Men, no miracles, and no mention of the Holy Spirit. It is rather a meditation on the events of Christ’s life and how we react to them — and, quintessentially, it is about us, and our relationship with God.
After the instrumental overture (just like an opera), the first words that we hear are “Comfort ye, comfort ye”. Jennens reminds us that we have the promise of being exalted, and of receiving comfort. But he then sends us off into the world of judgement in the recitative “Thus saith the Lord”, the aria “But who may abide”, and the chorus “And he shall purify”.
The judgement that is to come is for us all, and none can escape it. So we are set up with the promise of comfort, and the threat of judgement. How are these two opposites resolved? The answer lies with the Virgin who “will conceive and bear a son”, whose name is Emmanuel. We are already the centre of attention in this story. We are being comforted; we are being warned of the coming judgement; and we are being prepared for the arrival of “God with us”.
Jennens uses only one narrative episode in Messiah: the scene from Luke’s Gospel where the angels appear to the shepherds, tell of the birth of Jesus, and glorify God. Handel provides a little scena: a lilting, rural (or as rural as composers then could imagine) Pifa for the poor-but-happy shepherds, before the arrival of the angel.
By ignoring the actual birth, the Wise Men, et al., Jennens has decided to highlight the moment when the good news is given to the ordinary people. It is the shepherds who are first told, not a political leader nor a military government. This Jesus is for us all, high and low, small and great.
IN THE second part of Messiah, the focus moves to a meditation on the Passion, a brief consideration of the resurrection, and then a final section on the spreading of the gospel, and how we react to it. Again, there is no narrative here: no crucifixion, no giving up of the ghost; rather there are various biblical verses that reflect on events with which Jennens assumes we are already familiar.
We are invited to gaze on an image of the Lamb of God in the first chorus, and after the poignant “He was despised”, Handel provides us with a rollercoaster of emotion — from the angry, terse-sounding “Surely he hath borne our sins”, to the uncomfortable “And with his stripes we are healed”, before inviting us to one of the best musical parties in the business: “All we like sheep have gone astray”.
In this F-major movement, voices swirl around in fast semiquavers, go off in the “wrong” direction, and love doing it — “We have turnèd every one to his own way”. We lose ourselves in the euphoria of being sinful, and we love it — until a sudden crash into C minor at the words “And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Christ is to suffer for our misdeeds.
Handel makes it even more real by using a “turba” chorus to follow. Turba choruses are the crowd reactions in the Passion narratives, which reach their zenith in Bach’s St John Passion, where the crowd bays for the blood of Jesus. Handel sets Jennens’s quotation from Psalm 69 with a sneering fugue: “He trusted in God that he would deliver him, let him deliver him if he delight in him”.
The recitative that follows it is one of the most poignant ever written, reflecting on Christ’s desolation and loneliness. We are not with him. We have abandoned him. We have been the turba, losing ourselves first in the enjoyment of sin, and then in the energy of a combative fugue which bristles with unbridled rage.
JENNENS lists only two short texts to deal with the resurrection, and one for the ascension. Handel underplays this still further by using a short recitative and a restrained aria, although he does produce one of his most memorable choruses (”Lift up your heads”) for the ascension. The legendary “Hallelujah Chorus” — and let us clear up the fact that there is no evidence of George II’s having ever being at a performance of Messiah, nor standing because he thought it was the end, thus prompting everyone else to their feet — does not follow the resurrection.
George Stevens, in his 1965 film The Greatest Story Ever Told, uses the Hallelujah Chorus as Easter morning breaks and the news of Christ’s resurrection spreads. In Messiah, it appears at the end of Part II, and after Jennens has provided two other sections of texts: “The beginnings of gospel preaching” and “The world’s rejection of the gospel”.
It is after this final section, when we have witnessed the nations raging in a busy but ultimately futile aria, and when the Lord has “laughed them to scorn”, that Jennens places his “Hallelujah Chorus”. Handel is ending his Part II with the perfect closing item. Jennens, I suspect, is revelling in the triumph of faith over doubt and the routing of the Deists.
THE emphasis is back on us in Part III. It is about how we live our lives, and how we prepare for our death. “I know that my redeemer liveth” sings the soprano, in the same key as the first recitative and aria (”Comfort ye” and “Every valley”) at the beginning of the piece.
”The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised and we shall be changed” proclaims the bass in D major, with another backward glance to the recitative “Thus says the Lord”, and the aria “But who may abide” — both in Part I, and both in D minor. Christ is the comfort promised, and the answer to how we face judgement.
The final chorus, “Worthy is the Lamb”, where we worship the Lord in majesty, is proceeded by the exquisite aria “If God be for us, who can be against us”. This is the sure, confident statement that we are saved, protected, and cared for.
Jennens, in his selection of texts for Messiah, assembles a powerful case for showing that we live in God, and he lives in us. In many ways, Messiah is more about us than it is about Christ. Handel amplifies Jennens’s choice of scripture, and, in Messiah, has created a piece of music that we can take to our hearts, and enjoy as our own statement of faith.
Andrew Carwood is the Director of Music at St Paul’s Cathedral.