The genius of ‘Handel’s Messiah’
By the Rev. Kathy Brumbaugh, Special Writer
Background text: Isaiah 9:6
Devotional text: Luke 2:10-11
One of the greatest ways to prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus is to attend a program highlighting his birth. During this season of Advent, churches and auditoriums are sites of Christmas plays and cantatas for people to enjoy.
One of the most popular highlights of the season is a performance of “Handel’s Messiah.” It was composed by the German-born George Frideric Handel 280 years ago and has remained popular all these years as one of the best and most famous of religious oratorios.
Today, I’d like us to look at how this famous work came about and why it remains so popular today.
Handel was born Feb. 23, 1685, in Halle, Germany. He later moved to London and became a British citizen. A musical prodigy, he was playing the organ by age 11 and wrote his first opera at the age of 18 (he also played the harpsichord, violin and oboe).
His talent gave him the opportunities to compose, conduct and perform in royal courts, at musical venues and churches throughout Germany, Italy and England.
Originally, “Handel’s Messiah” was written for an Easter concert; it debuted at the Musicale Hall in Dublin, Ireland, on April 13, 1742, when Handel was 57 years old.
Hardly eating or sleeping, he completed the oratorio that is 260 pages long and written in 52 movements (some say it is 53) over 24 days during the months of August and September in the previous year.
As we focus on the creative genius at work, I do want to set a few things straight. First, it wasn’t unusual for Handel to write his music at a whirlwind speed. This was his usual way.
Second, it was not Handel who wrote the lyrics. All the lyrics came from the King James Bible and from the Cloverdale Psalter. The compilation of text was given to Handel by his friend and patron Charles Jennens, who encouraged Handel to compose the religious work.
The Messiah was written in three parts: part one focuses on the birth of Christ with many of the scriptures coming from Isaiah followed by the second chapter of Luke. They focus on the prophecy of Christ’s birth from Isaiah and then go to Luke for the appearance of the angels to the shepherds.
There are 21 movements in part one, with the last four going into the life of Jesus, during his earthly ministry.
In part two, we read scripture from Isaiah, the Psalms and Lamentations, as well as a few texts from Romans and Hebrews in movements 21 through 32. These texts speak to us about the arrest of Jesus, beatings by the soldiers and his crucifixion.
The resurrection of Jesus is the subject of movements 33 through 36, followed by the spreading of the gospel in 37 through 39. In movements 41 through 43, we hear the scripture found in Psalm 2, as the coronation of Christ the King.
Part two ends with scripture from Revelation in movement 44, as the chorale sings the “Hallelujah Chorus,” a beautiful, moving, dramatic and heavenly piece in words and music. Traditionally, when the “Hallelujah Chorus” is sung, everyone will rise to their feet and stand. This tradition started during a performance on March 23, 1743, when King George II is said to have been so overcome by the words and glorious music that he stood up. In order to not offend the King, all the people at that performance also stood.
People have been following suit in the same way today. Once you hear it, you will see why. It seems almost impossible to remain sitting as the music and the words combine to stir our very souls. When we hear these words almost shouted with drama and great joy, how can we stay seated?
“King of kings, and Lord of lords, King of kings, and Lord of lords … And he shall reign forever and ever, and he shall reign forever and ever, and he shall reign forever and ever … Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”
The last movements in Part three cover the risen Savior, victory over death, the risen Savior who sits at the right hand of God and these words from Revelation 5:12-14: “Worthy is the lamb … who sits on the throne forever.”
Because this work covers the totality of Jesus’ life, it quickly became a Christmas presentation as well as Easter.
The entire performance of the “Messiah” inspires us to feel the words with the music as they combine through choruses and soloists along with the music to stir our emotions.
This melding of scripture and music is like no other. Beethoven called Handel “the greatest composer who ever lived.” Haydn said of him, “the master of us all,” and musicologist Winton Dean said Handel was a “dramatic genius of the first order.”
As we prepare for Christmas, take a listen to this sacred work by Handel and prepare to be enthralled.