For me as a Jew, neither an individual messiah nor a messianic age has come. Given the state of our world, neither is likely to come anytime soon. But my beliefs are no reason to deter me from experiencing Handel’s Messiah, a great work of art that is based on an entirely different set of religious beliefs. My appreciation of Messiah is primarily aesthetic, because I do not find the theology espoused in the biblical passages selected by Handel’s collaborator Charles Jennens, in contemporary terms, relatable.
In recent years, I’ve begun to attend performances of Messiah, two years ago Tafelfusik Baroque Orchestra’s in Koerner Hall and last year the Toronto Symphony’s in Roy Thomson Hall. I prefer Tafelmusik’s original instruments approach in a smaller setting to the Toronto Symphony’s rendition of Mozart’s more elaborate orchestration in a cavernous auditorium, but either is preferable to sitting at home listening to a broadcast. I thought I would expand on this year’s restrained enjoyment of Messiah with some observations on aspects of it I find most appealing.
Unlike opera, oratoria includes no acting or staging, but that doesn’t prevent the music from evoking powerful images in my mind. The violin accompaniment to “there were shepherds abiding in the field” (section 14) represents stars twinkling. If the soprano can bring to that recitative a sense of rapture and ecstasy, an angelic chorus appears. “I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land” (section 14) calls up visions of storms and earthquakes. “Why do the nations so furiously rage together and why do the people imagine a vain thing?” (section 38) conjures pitched battles, violent protest, propaganda, and disinformation. “Behold, I tell you a mystery” (section 45) makes me imagine a prophet speaking to the initiated. In these three sections, if the bass can bring the same excitement and commitment to his presentation as the soprano to hers, the images swiftly appear.
The Messiah is full of contrasts, from the overall tone of its three parts (optimistic, anxious and sorrowful, and triumphant) to contrasts between adjacent sections in any part (say sections 25 to 29 in contrast to section 31 (“Lift up your heads, O ye gates”). Finally, some sections have internal contrasts, such as section 44: “Since by man came death” – quietly, slowly, and sadly – followed by the fast-paced and exultant “by man came also the resurrection of the dead.” These surprises hold the audience’s attention.
I once heard someone disparage the Hallelujah Chorus because it repeats the word Hallelujah some 91 times (not that I ever counted). On the contrary, I admire Handel’s ingenuity in endowing that four-syllable word with so many different rhythms and tonalities. But Messiah is repetitive, especially at the end: (the “Hallelujah,” “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” and “Amen” sections). And in many other sections the text is repeated once or twice. I can’t get enough of a wonderful thing.
Just as Wagner’s music is built around motifs, musical passages that act as signifiers, Messiah uses repeated images. Here the three I find most powerful.
Sheep and Lambs
Messiah incorporates images of sheep and lambs: the sheep in the fields at the annunciation (section 14), the behaviour of sheep as metaphor for human weakness (“all we like sheep have gone astray,” section 24) with its lovely archaic phrase, “all we,” and the references to Jesus as the Lamb (capitalized) in sections 20 (“Behold the Lamb of God”) and 51 (“Worthy is the Lamb.”)
Messiah includes many references to corruption, but not the political kind we are, sadly, well-acquainted with. The term has an older meaning – physical decay of the dead body. Section 30 refers to God not permitting “Thy Holy One [Jesus] to see corruption.” Section 46 depicts the end of days in which “the dead shall be raised incorruptible [physically intact]” and “this corruptible [body] must put on incorruption.” Not at all my belief, but a powerful statement of traditional Christian theology.
Kings and the King of Kings
Messiah makes references to God as King, for example in section 31 (“Lift up your heads, O ye gates”) as the “King of glory” and in the Hallelujah Chorus as the “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” And in the last section (“Worthy is the Lamb”) “blessing, honour, glory and power” all accrue to the Lamb (Jesus) and to “Him that sitteth upon the throne” (God). But given England’s status as a sceptred isle and King George II’s embrace of Messiah (standing for the Hallelujah Chorus) one can’t wonder if the audience wasn’t attributing the title king to the temporal rather than, or at least in addition to, the divine monarch.
Messiah contains multitudes, and what I have written barely scratches the surface. Yesterday the New York Times published an article in which several artists who have performed Messiah present their thoughts about their favourite sections. Their emotional and religious connections to the work are deeper than my own, and I respect that. I strongly recommend the article. Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.