It has been 217 years since Messiah’s first performance, yet almost every community this Advent will have sold-out performances of this magnificent oratorio. People will again stand in line to listen and be inspired. Many others will raise their own hearty voices in “sing-along” performances of Messiah, or perhaps join flash mobs in the mall to sing its “Hallelujah Chorus” to shoppers’ delight. There is something mysterious and magical about the way Messiah blends Sacred Text with soaring music that never fails to move us. Although written for Holy Week and Easter, Messiah has become synonymous with the days leading up to Christmas. Its breathtaking crescendos and choruses speak to “the hopes and fears of all the years”.
Music historian, Calvin Stapert, comments on Messiah enduring popularity: “The Messiah phenomenon has no parallel in music history. No work of music has survived, let alone thrived, on so many performances, good, bad, and indifferent, by and for so many people, year after year, for such a long time.”
It is reported that after Messiah first performance on April 13, 1742, the composer, George Frederic Handel, when congratulated on such fine “entertainment”, Handel shot back: “I should be sorry if I only entertained them, I wish to make them better!”
Messiah is great entertainment, but so much more: it can make us better. Its text and music combine to testify to a broken world about God’s Messiah. It was not intended for the classical music enthusiast, but for everyday people needing some hope and encouragement. It truly speaks the language of the heart.
While Messiah music echoes of heaven, its lasting appeal is perhaps found in its Biblical text. John Rutter, the acclaimed composer and conductor, comments on the enduring beauty of Messiah words, or its libretto:
“Among Handel’s twenty or more oratorios, Messiah has long been the most often performed, holding a place of honor in the hearts of audiences everywhere. Why? The reason, surely, does not lie solely with the music, magnificent and ever fresh though it is. Solomon, Saul, Israel in Egypt, and Jeptha among others, all contain music equally fine. What makes Messiah unique is its libretto…containing the kernel of the Christian faith.”
Ludwig van Beethoven declared Handel, “the greatest composer who ever lived”. Beethoven also spoke of Messiah as having “sublimity of language”. Here it is all in one, the world’s greatest music and words sublime! Read, listen, learn, and enjoy!
HOW MESSIAH CAME TO BE: THE IDEA
Yes, we frequently call it “Handel’s Messiah”, yet we are in debt to another man, Charles Jennens (1700-1773), for its very existence. Were it not for this often forgotten man we would not be delighting in Messiah this Advent. The idea for Messiah was entirely Jennens’, and he is the one who so artfully pieced together the scattered Biblical passages that Handel set to music.
Jennens was a wealthy English landowner and gentleman scholar educated at Oxford. He lived on his family’s large country estate and was a literary critic and Shakespearean scholar. In addition Jennens showed a flair for music and theological studies. He spent his winters and springs in London so that he could attend the theater and opera. He was an admirer of George Frederic Handel’s operas, and had in his library almost every note Handel had written. He had made the effort to become acquainted with Handel and supplied him with lyrics for some of his music (e.g. Saul, Israel in Egypt, Belshazzar, and others).
Jennens was a devout Christian and generous philanthropist. He gave large sums to the “Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts” and funded lectures on Christian theology. His library was filled with volumes of theology and Biblical studies, and his fireplaces were even decorated with reliefs depicting Bibilical scenes.
He was troubled by what he regarded as the moral and religious drift of his country. He feared for his church, which he saw as casting off from the moorings of the Christian faith: denying the deity of Jesus, the resurrection, miracles, and message of God’s grace. Many spoke of a clock-maker god who created the world and then walked away from it, never revealing Himself or intervening in human history. Jennens committed his life to spreading the Gospel of Jesus, the Messiah.
Yet it was a profound personal tragedy that was perhaps most responsible for Jennens wanting to tell the world the story of Messiah. When Jennens was twenty-eight years old his younger brother took his own life in despair and doubt. Jennens was determined that the world know the comfort of the Messiah. He believed that the best means for telling the world about Jesus Messiah would be through music, especially through the music of George Frederic Handel.
Jennens set to work on what he called a “Scripture collection” he would send to Handel. It was in putting together the “Scripture collection” that his extensive knowledge of the Bible and theology, as well as music, came into play. His genius enabled him to balance the theological and musical demands of such a work. Jennens took every word straight from the King James Bible, except for selections from the Psalms, which he took from the Book of Common Prayer (based on the Coverdale Bible of 1539). Listeners are often amazed at how artfully Jennens pieced together texts from scattered portions of the Bible. The words flow seamlessly to tell Messiah’s story.
At a time when literacy was low and copies of the Bible rare and expensive, Jennens wanted to spread the story of Messiah. He believed that such a musical genius as Handel could help tell that story in a way that the masses would stand in line to listen. He proposed to Handel that such a work be directed towards people who would be going to the theater rather than church during Holy Week. He wanted as wide an audience as possible to hear about Messiah. He was sure that Handel would give it his best. He specified the oratorio to be called simply, Messiah.
Jennens planned the oratorio as if it were a three act opera people would see in the theater. The first part of Messiah would focus on Old Testament prophecies of Messiah with their fulfillment in Jesus’ birth. The second part would take up our redemption, Messiah’s suffering, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of God. Part three would tell of Messiah’s redeeming work along with thanksgiving for the defeat of death.
Messiah was carefully crafted with a purpose; it was to be an argument for the Christian faith. It was to show that Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, and how God intervened in history by sending His Son to be King of Kings. Musicologist R. A. Streatfield described Messiah as “the first instance in the history of music of an attempt to view the mighty drama of human redemption from an artistic viewpoint”.
HOW MESSIAH CAME TO BE: THE MUSIC
George Frederic Handel was a child prodigy in Germany, writing his first music when only 10 years old, and becoming a professional musician at age 18. When he was 26, he moved to London where he was successful producing operas as well as composing for royalty and church. But Handel’s first love was writing Italian opera for his English audience.
It has been estimated that Handel put more notes to paper than any other composer in history. He is regarded as the first business entrepreneur in the music world. He proved adept at organizing opera companies and raising financial support for his music. But in time London’s taste in music changed; his public grew weary of Italian operas. His last opera closed after just three performances, leaving Handel deeply in debt and despondent, living in near seclusion.
By 1741, Handel’s life had reached its lowest ebb. Along with his failing ventures Handel also was brought down from the effects of strokes, rheumatism, and insomnia. In a letter Jennens described Handel as suffering from “Paralytic disorder, which affect His Head and Speech”. Many suspected that Handel would return to Germany, even though Prince Friedrich had written that “Handel’s great days are over, his inspiration exhausted, and his taste behind the fashion.” One London newspaper chimed in, dismissing Handel as “the German nincompoop.” He had gone from riches to rags, and feared spending the rest of his days in debtor’s prison.
HOW MESSIAH CAME TO BE: HISTORICAL SYNCHRONICITY
In the summer of 1741, two letters arrived at Handel’s house on Brook Street that changed his life forever. The first letter came from the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland asking Handel to stage a series of benefit concerts in Dublin featuring his music. Proceeds from the concerts would be “For the relief of the prisoners to the several gaols (jails), and for the support of Mercer’s Hospital on Stephen Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inn’s Quay”.
Then a second letter arrived in a wondrous synchronicity with the first. It was a letter from Charles Jennens containing the “Scripture collection” he wanted Handel to set to music. As Handel read over the Bible passages about Messiah, he was gripped with what he read. He began putting pen to paper, setting the Biblical text to music at a furious pace. He started composing on August 22, and by September 14 he had finished Messiah! Often going without food or sleep, he completed the 259-page manuscript with orchestration in just 24 days. The physical demand of putting that many notes to paper in such a short time was remarkable. He was a man possessed! At the end of Messiah Handel wrote the letters “SDG”, for Soli Deo Gloria (“To God Alone the Glory”).
There is a story how at one point in his composing Handel burst from his study with tears in his eyes and manuscript in his hand, exclaiming: “I think I did see heaven before me, and the great God Himself seated on His throne!”
In response to the letter from the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Messiah was first performed for charity in Dublin on April 13, 1742. It was presented in 3 acts with 2 intermissions, and lasted for about 3 hours. In order to accommodate the largest possible audience, newspapers requested, “ladies should not wear hoopskirts nor men their swords.”
Dublin newspapers hailed the debut, with the Dublin Journal praising it enthusiastically:
“Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to admiring, crouded[sic] Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestic and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.”
News of Messiah soon spread to London, but controversy delayed its performance there. Many objected to a sacred subject being presented in a secular venue such as a theater. It was finally presented at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, with all its proceeds donated to local charities and hospitals for the mentally ill.
Handel chose never to receive any money from Messiah, but directed all receipts go to charities, especially for the care of homeless children and prisoners. At a performance of Messiah to honor Handel’s seventy-fourth birthday, a blind Handel rose and responded to the thunderous applause: “Not from me, but from heaven, comes all.”
THE PLAN FOR DAILY REFLECTIONS
These Advent reflections have been put together with the idea that the words and music of Messiah become an occasion for daily prayer. The word “oratorio”, as in Messiah Oratorio, comes from the Latin orare, which means, “to pray”. And an “oratory” is that special place where people gather to pray. I cannot think of a better way to pray during Advent than to pray as we read and listen to Messiah.
First, I hope you will take time each day to read that day’s Biblical text of Messiah, along with the brief comments. Second, take time to listen to the music, reading the comments of how the music and text work powerfully together.
We all know the power of words, but we also know the difference it can make when those same words are fused with music. Sometimes words are too small a container to say everything. Music is a non-verbal way of saying some things too big for words. Music touches both the left and right brain, reaching deep within where words alone cannot touch. In fact, scientists using brain imaging tell us that music stimulates more areas of the brain than any other activity.
Third, reflect on what you have read and heard by meditating on the questions at the bottom of the page (Praying Messiah). If there are days when you can only read the Biblical text and comments, but not listen to its music, you are still encouraged to engage the reflection points under Praying Messiah.
Jesus said there are only two things that will survive this world: God’s Word and people. That is why I hope you will make some time each day to meet God in the Sacred Words of Messiah.
AUTHOR’S Note: In preparation of this devotional I have been aided by several commentaries on the Biblical text and some fine works on Messiah’s music, especially two excellent sources: Roger Bullard, Messiah: The Gospel according to Handel’s Oratorio, and Calvin R. Stapert, Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People.