This series was originally written in 2009, but is being re-posted with some updates and revisions. I pray that it will bless you this Advent season! For some great ideas about how to use Handel’s greatest oratorio as a daily Advent reading for your family, click here.
Today I am happy to announce the start of a new series that I’ll be writing for the rest of this year. Among the many great traditions of the Advent season is the performance in nearly every community across the country (if not the globe) of George Frederic Handel’s great oratorio, Messiah. Everyone has heard it. Many have performed it. Few realize its true scope and importance.
In the coming weeks, I will be writing several short posts looking at Messiah both musically and theologically. Much of what I will be posting will be sections of an excellent essay published in 2001, and written by Daniel I. Block, professor of Old Testament Studies at Wheaton College (though he was at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary back in 2001). The essay is entitled “Handel’s Messiah: Biblical and Theological Perspectives”, and can be found in its entirety online here. Highly recommended reading!
Each post in this series will cover 1-3 of the oratorio’s movements. I’ll offer parenthetical and concluding comments of my own along the way. I hope that this series will give you a new appreciation not only for a piece of music, but for the Word of God contained in its libretto (text). Today will serve mostly as an introduction, but from tomorrow on it’s all about the music!
The introduction of Block’s essay gives some background information on the work, and biographical information on the composer & librettist. He points out that the proper name of the composition is Messiah, not The Messiah. Composed over a 24-day period in 1741, there are 56 Biblical texts set to music. Twenty-two are arranged for chorus, and the remainder are sung by four soloists.
The purpose of writing this work was to present the entire history of salvation, and to show that all of Scripture, Old & New Testaments, testifies to Jesus Christ as the Messiah. The text — all of which comes from what was then known as the “Authorized Version” (King James) — was compiled by a gentleman named Charles Jennens, though Handel himself had some input. These texts are arranged into three sections:
- Part I: The prophesy and realization of God’s plan to redeem mankind by the coming of the Messiah
- Part II: The accomplishment of redemption by the sacrifice of Jesus, mankind’s rejection of God’s offer, and mankind’s utter defeat when trying to oppose the power of the Almighty
- Part III: A hymn of thanksgiving for the final overthrow of death. (And you thought it was just about Christmas!)
And so, without further adieu, here is the first number of Messiah, a symphonic overture which precedes the first text. Block offers some comments on the overture, which you can read as you listen:
Against the backdrop of the symphonic overture (#1), whose purpose apparently was to create “a mood without hope,” Part I opens with one of the most heartwarming and hopeful texts of all Scripture, Isaiah 40:1-5. Whether or not Handel intended this pattern of gloom and despair giving way to light and hope to be a reflection of the biblical text, it is possible to interpret the overture as a musical commentary on Isaiah 1-39, whose message and tone is largely judgmental. In these chapters the prophet Isaiah declares over and over again that because of the hardness of Israel’s heart and the persistence of her rebellion against the divine sovereign and gracious redeemer, Yahweh was about to bring in his foreign agents of judgment. But in chapter 40 the tone and the tune change so dramatically that critical scholars have trouble imagining 40-66 to have come from the same prophet. Our task here is not to critique such conclusions, but it strikes me that Handel has caught the spirit of the book better than most contemporary scholars. The point of chapter 40 and the rest of 40-66 is that far in advance Yahweh has foreseen and predicted the end of the judgment. Here the prophet functions as a herald, preparing the way for Yahweh who will go before the people, leading them back to their homeland after their exile in Babylon.
As the instrumental music director for our church, I love the fact that the instrumental prelude is itself designed to convey Biblical Truth! This is the goal behind all of the preparation and implementation of the music that we use with our orchestra, and the impetus for our passion to reclaim the arts for Christ’s glory through our School of Performing Arts.
I hate to leave you with “a mood without hope”, but return tomorrow for the “heartwarming and hopeful” sequel!