In my mind, there is no greater example of musical genius than George Frederic Handel’s oratorio, Messiah. Last year, I wrote a series of blog posts (which you can find through a link in the upper-right corner of this page) looking at the musical, historical, and theological significance of this work. However, those were, admittedly, the product of my own reflections and observations rather than of any scholarly study.
I was very excited, then, to learn of a new scholarly look at the Messiah by Calvin Stapert, a professor of music at Calvin College. This book is everything I had hoped it would be! Through reading it, I have developed an even greater love for and understanding of Handel’s masterpiece.
Stapert begins with a history of the development of “oratorio” as a style of music, tracing its origins in opera, and the acceptance and opposition it faced from various sectors of Christendom. He then progresses into a biographical section about Handel, and how this German came to become a composer of English oratorio.
The third chapter is a history of the composition itself. Stapert details how Handel and Charles Jennens – Messiah’s librettist – came to be associated, and how their tenuous relationship nevertheless produced several brilliant oratorios. He traces the oratorio’s instant success and consistent popularity, along with the various re-orchestrations and performance trends (from a small, baroque orchestra with few singers, to the larger classical orchestrations by Mozart and others, to the huge Romantic-era mega-choirs of the 19th and early 20th centuries, to the neo-Baroque performances of today which often seek to remain faithful to Handel’s original conception).
In the following two chapters, the book investigates the tremendous impact Messiah has had on its audiences in the last two-and-a-half centuries. Though Handel said in so many words that he intended for his compositions to instruct others and “to make them better”, it is doubtful even he could have seen the way it would be used to forever stamp God’s Word on the minds of even the most stalwart opponents of the Christian faith. In particular, Messiah stood intentionally and diametrically opposed to Deism, a heretical form of religion which was sweeping through the world at the time.
The final four chapters go movement-by-movement through the entire oratorio, analyzing the lyrics and music in painstaking detail. This is the real strength of the book, as it opened my eyes to musical subtleties and theological insights that I have missed through literally hundreds of listenings.
One last note (no pun intended) is on the audio-book version, which I received free from ChristianAudio.com. This book was read by James Adams. Though Adams read very well, his voice – a very scholarly-sounding British accent which to my American ears seemed to contain a hint of arrogance – took some getting used. Once I became acclimated to it, though, I found that I actually enjoyed it. Any potential disappointments with the reader’s voice, however, are offset by the audiobook’s inclusion of musical excerpts from Messiah, which are immensely helpful during Stapert’s exposition of the score. For those reading the paper copy, I highly recommend keeping a quality recording of Messiah close at hand as you read!
This book is a fine addition to any library, whether you are a lover of music, history, Handel’s Messiah, or, like me, of all three! Buy it here.