Handel’s Messiah — Notes by John Butt

Portland Baroque - Cappella Romana - Messiah (2013)

Portland Baroque - Cappella Romana - Messiah (2013)


The libretto that the irascible Charles Jennens sent to Handel at some point in the summer of 1741 was not in itself an extraordinary document within the Christian tradition. After all, the Gospels and Epistles already made ample reference to the way in which the New Testament was foretold in the Old, and this tradition was carried even further by the Church Fathers. It was also something that was enthusiastically embraced by Anglican clerics of the 17th and 18th centuries, and just as strongly by the Lutherans, who helped form and provide Handel’s own educational background. There was, after all, a parallel in the way the “new law” of the Gospel mollified the old, and in the way in which the first of the Reformation confessions set out to modify the Catholic faith.

A suitable subject for an oratorio?

Nor was it in any way extraordinary for an oratorio to be based on a religious subject. Indeed, the very genre of oratorio was originally conceived as a way of presenting biblical stories in a dramatic fashion, and Handel had already set many Old Testament stories in his highly successful oratorios of the 1730s. Nevertheless, the idea of going to the very heart of the dominant faith by basing a work on the incarnation, ministry, passion, resurrection and future promise of Christ, was radical within the British and Irish context of the 18th century. Oratorios were invariably performed in theatres, which still carried the resonances of secular drama, where one was expected to create and encounter the patently artificial and contrived, and at a time when many still suspected theatrical practice to lack the essential moral grounding of sincerity and truth. Theatres and opera houses were also the platforms for the celebrity actors and singers of the age, and these behaved in ways that did not always conform to the moral expectations of the churchmen. Nevertheless, with the success of Handel’s first performances, in Dublin (1742) and London (1743), Messiah soon became accepted as both eminently respectable and inspiring to those with even the most orthodox of religious faith. Before long, its reach was even greater, crossing religious and cultural boundaries in a way unparalleled in the history of oratorio.

Exploiting dramatic and musical potential

In fact, Jennens’s text compilation is extremely productive in terms of its dramatic and musical potential. First, so as to avoid the actual representation of the person of Christ in a theatrical context, Jesus is always referred to in third-person terms, with slight changes to the biblical text when necessary (e.g., “He gave his back to the smiters” rather than “I gave my back to the smiters”); indeed, he is not mentioned by name until the chorus, “But thanks be to God” near the end of Part III (and, with the exception of the Nativity scene, “Christ” makes its first appearance in the “Hallelujah” chorus, ending Part II). Thus, the listener and indeed the music have to make the necessary connections between Old and New Testament texts and somehow infer the identity and presence of Jesus, as Christ; there is also some degree of trajectory towards the third part. Most significantly, it is Handel’s music that joins everything together, both in terms of the way the texts sound in close succession, and in the sequence of ideas and emotions.

Virtually all Handel’s operatic career lay behind him by 1741, and he had also had considerable oratorio experience both in Italy and in England. His Lutheran background must also have been of some significance: not only would he have been brought up with musical settings joining diverse parts of the Bible together, but he was also fully aware of the Lutheran Passion tradition, in which the arrest, trial and suffering of Jesus are set in such graphic and moving musical terms. The mocking chorus, “He trusted in God that he would deliver him,” comes very close to the sort of music German composers were using for the vicious crowd scenes of Passion settings.

Part I: The coming of Christ

The published libretto for some of the London performance shows clearly that Handel (and presumably Jennens too) saw the work as flowing together in “scenes,” Thus, choruses such as “And the glory of the Lord” and “And he shall purify” follow on directly from the preceding arias, just as the conjunction “and” would imply in the biblical text concerned. Only an experienced opera composer would know how to unify the musical mood of each scene, or, if appropriate, present a sense of transformation. This is evident right at the start of the piece, where the “Sinfony” presents a dark, agitated effect that is suddenly dispelled by the tenor’s first entry, “Comfort ye.” (The first hearers might have expected this recitative, when it began, to be the slow section of the overture.) The sense of increasing joy and confidence at the coming of Christ is projected throughout the glorious progression towards the first chorus, “And the glory of the Lord.” Later scenes in Part I continue the pattern of darkness to light up to the angels’ chorus “Glory to God.” The final arias and chorus of Part I take us into softer, flatter keys, while still preserving an infectious sense of joy (particularly in the virtuoso soprano aria, “Rejoice greatly”), The overall move in Part I, from E minor to B flat major (the greatest distance that can be covered within the tonal system, still quite new in Handel’s day), suggests that Christ’s coming and ministry are not the end of the story.

Part II: Christ’s passion, death and resurrection

Part II thus begins in somber, flat often minor – keys, only to move sharpwards again at the center point (“Thy rebuke hath broken his heart” to “But thou didst not leave his soul in hell”). All the “passion” music is one continuous scene, extended and relentless, and quite agonizing in its concentration of emotion (especially with the famous alto aria, “He was despised and rejected”), Particularly impressive here is the way the chorus fulfills so many roles, from presenting the “Lamb of God,” lamenting the suffering of Christ, acknowledging the weakness of humankind (“All we like sheep” being one of Handel’s most delightful depictions of human failure), and playing the part of Christ’s tormentors. In the latter half of Part II, the chorus presents the resurrection of Christ and defeat of his enemies in patently triumphalist, often warlike, terms. (Hopefully, Handel’s music renders it suitably metaphorical in a public performance context.) From the strikingly dramatic bass aria “Why do the nations so furiously rage together” to the “Hallelujah” closing Part II, there is an almost unstoppable dramatic sequence of music, using the means of opera to represent the rapid spread and triumph of the new religion.

Part III: The aftermath

Part III takes us into the present with “I know that my redeemer liveth” (its E major perhaps being the ultimate resolution of the opening E minor overture), and from there to hopes about the “end times” and the overcoming of human mortality. As ever, the dramatic pacing is acute and the antithetical blocks of the chorus “Since by man came death” are representative of the contrasts in the work as a whole. Handel is also quite outstanding – at least for a composer of his time – in presenting the change from one state to another, as in the progression in the recitative “Behold, I tell you a mystery” towards the startling call of the last trumpet. Handel’s music for the overcoming of death and the confidence of “God’s elect” makes a last survey of gentler moods and keys before the final return of the D major glory of the final chorus, recalling the mood of the “Hallelujah” ending Part II. (Baroque trumpets all but demand that the work, if it is to be triumphal, must end in this key.)

A transcendental work

What is remarkable about Messiah is the way that the textual combinations and allusions are quite obscure – even contentious in the case of the possible multiple authorship of Isaiah – yet the work seems to make sense to a diverse range of audiences. In other words, its musical setting and the moods it conjures up seem to be perfectly comprehensible, indeed they take one through extraordinarily deep emotional states, even if one is ignorant of, or even antipathetic towards, the text. The work has a plot line (resolution of an initial conflict, coming of joy, total dejection followed by resolution, hope for the future) that is not unlike that of the operas of Handel’s time or even of the emergent modern novel. This may well suggest that music can both entertain and develop our moral consciousness in ways paralleling purely verbal art. It is, moreover, hard to exclude the intuition that music also takes us to states and feelings that are unattainable in any other way.

—© John Butt

2014 Concert Information:

Friday, 12 December 2014, 7:30pm (Full – 3 hours)
Saturday, 13 December 2014, 7:30pm (Full – 3 hours)
Sunday, 14 December 2014, 7:30pm (Full – 3 hours)
Monday, 15 December 2014, 7:30pm (Selections – 2 hours)
All Performances are at First Baptist Church.

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