Handel's Messiah: Passion and Pathos

Reading Time: 4 mins

Physicality is good. Some way or another, choose a full performance of Messiah and give it your full attention. More than one time. Consider it a devotional practice.

On August 21, 1741, George Frideric Handel shut himself in his home to begin writing Messiah. He finished his composition 23 days later. “Whether I was in the body or out of the body when I wrote it, I know not,” he later said.

His life had already involved a lot of transport. Some years before, George Frideric Handel was one of several luminaries invited to follow his patron, King George I, to Britain from Hanover, Germany. Handel was already an established composer, and George I commissioned him to write works glorifying the monarchy, such as “Music for the Royal Fireworks,” and anthems like, “Zadok the Priest,” which are still used in royal coronations. While Handel’s early works were in many languages, we English speakers benefit from how Handel’s move to Britain led him to compose English works, including Messiah.

The format for Messiah came about as a result of church rules that forbade the performance of opera during the Lenten season. Specifically, lavish costumes and sets were prohibited, so Handel chose to write an oratorio instead, a kind of musical production broken into choruses (where a choir sang) and arias (where an individual sang) and orchestral sections (no singing), but with no staging or actors. The result was a production that feels anything but impoverished by what was left out. Handel had already written nearly a dozen oratorios before Messiah, so he was a master of the form, but Messiah is by far his most popular. Messiah may often work as a gateway into classical music for those who otherwise would have no interest in it.

The libretto, or text of Messiah, had been written the prior year by Charles Jennens, a conservative Anglican who wanted to counter Deist attitudes that downplayed the intervention of God in human affairs. Therefore Handel’s labors were focused on composing the musical setting, which he did with specific singers in mind, much like a modern screenwriter who writes to bring out the talents of a particular actor or actress.

When I was at The Handel House Museum a few years ago, I learned of the story of Susannah Cibber, an accomplished actress during a time when the theater was just beginning to shed its scandalous reputation. Handel had enjoyed working with Mrs. Cibber in the past, but her rise to fame was interrupted. She was accused of adultery by her husband (who was not innocent himself) and subsequently fined the lowest legal amount by the court, as all judging parties felt sorry for her. With a ruined reputation, she moved to Dublin, Ireland. After composing Messiah, Handel also moved to Dublin as London opportunities were also drying up for him. When Messiah was first performed, Handel invited her to sing the contralto part, which he wrote especially for her. Mrs. Cibber sang this aria with great pathos:

He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief (Isa 53:3)
He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off his hair, He hid not His face from shame and spitting (Isa 50:6).

Her own experience of recent times had given her insight into what it was to be despised and rejected. The audience was drawn in. The piece so moved the chancellor of St. Patrick’s Cathedral that he shouted, “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”

This incident is a good illustration of the fact that Messiah’s power is not limited to its most famous high point, the “Hallelujah Chorus.” I remember one day attending a Greek class where our professor was lamenting that when we heard the Boston Symphony present Messiah, a significant portion of the audience left at the end of the second part after the “Hallelujah Chorus.” But their early exit deprived them of the joy of hearing what he thought was the even grander: the “Worthy is the Lamb” chorus at the end of the third part.

Sometimes in our drive to always focus on the best, we lose out on the good. There is a time to look at the tallest tree, and a time to take in the forest. Messiah is a great opportunity to take in the forest. I think this point is even more important to make now, when digital music has people choosing their favorite tracks within an album, rather than having to commit to an entire album. But remember how it often was with physical media. You may have bought an album for your favorite track, and when you got it home, you often discovered that there were other good tracks. Perhaps over time, your initial favorite didn’t even remain your favorite as another song wore its way into your soul. I suggest that you give Messiah the opportunity to work on you like that.

Physicality is good. Some way or another, choose a full performance of Messiah and give it your full attention. More than one time. Consider it a devotional practice.

The piece begins with a Symphony, where the orchestra plays unaccompanied. The mood is one of threat and turmoil. Things are going wrong in the world. This provides the backdrop for the next part, the Accompagnato which begins:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplish’d, that her iniquity is pardon’d.

This is sung by a tenor. It is best when it is sung by a voice capable of conveying sweetness, but during one live performance, I learned that when this is not sung sweetly, it might be because they chose a more forceful tenor who could convey the roiling energy for a later part, “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” Your tenor will almost surely be better at doing one or the other. But this is the very kind of artistic point that might have theological ramifications. At the very least, it can spur the question, “Which aspect do we need to hear the most?” That may depend on a given audience or the given time. In any case, the tenors are a bit like pastors here. One is gifted for one purpose and another for another, and you receive what you are given with thankfulness if you get one strength in prominent supply.

The entire oratorio is filled with examples where meaning can be found in form. Some of this is immediately accessible. Nobody has to be told that the Hallelujah Chorus is grand, but some of this steals over you over long periods of time, or becomes evident when you compare one performance with another.

If you are new to Handel, commit to playing Messiah more than you might expect to benefit from. It will pay off. Spend some time giving extra attention to sections that you imagine are secondary. You will find that there is no small portion that is not worthy of your time, from the opening symphony to the final “Amen. Amen. Amen.”