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Today we finally encounter one of the two most famous movements from Messiah: “For Unto Us a Child Is Born”. In addition to being four minutes of some of the best music ever composed, its text is one of the greatest Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament. And, of course, nearly every music theory textbook references this movement as a prime example of a technique known as “melisma”. This is where one syllable is stretched out over several different notes. This number presents a challenge for choirs, as all four voice parts are required to sing complicated melismatic passages, particularly on the word “born”. (On a side note, NPR has an interesting take on melisma, and it’s relation to gospel music and “American Idol”, which you can read here.)
Preceding this beautiful number, though, is a meandering aria for the bass soloist that definitely conjures images of wandering in darkness!
#11: Air (Bass)
Isaiah 9:2 — The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.
Isaiah 9:6 — For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
Here are the comments on these numbers from Daniel Block’s essay (my comments in parentheses):
Speaking of light shining on the people that walk in darkness, the following bass aria (#11) draws upon Isaiah 9:2, which provides the backdrop and “blackdrop” to the first explicitly Messianic text in the oratorio and the most complete Messianic statement in Isaiah 1-39. The following chorus (#12) leapfrogs over three verses that describe the effects of that light to the source and basis for the light: the birth of this divine Wunderkind bearing the names Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Even so, through verse 6, the Messianic overtones are suppressed, especially if we understand the term “Messiah” as the ancient Hebrews did. That sense is reflected in verse 7, which Jennens fails to incorporate. Why, we may only speculate. Perhaps he assumed his audience would be familiar enough with the entire context, verses 2-7, and could fill the lacunae (gaps in the text) themselves.
These gaps are the verses surrounding those chosen for the Messiah libretto. Isaiah 9:3-5 describes overflowing joy that results from a powerful and conquering deliverer who defeats enemies “as on the day of Midian”, referring to Gideon’s unlikely victory over Midian by God’s hand as recorded in Judges 6-7. This is the context of the “for” that begins verse 6. This child that is to be born, and who would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” is the mighty hero described in the preceding verses. Verse 7 tells us that this coming ruler would be of the line of David and would reign forever with perfect justice and righteousness — something which only the Lord could accomplish.
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. ~ Isaiah 9:7
Block understandably questions why this verse would be omitted, as it, along with verses 3-5, underscores the Jewish understanding and expectation of the Messiah, whose reign would be eternal and universal. In fact, there are many explicitly Messianic prophetic texts passed over by Jennens and Handel, which provided the basis for the messianic vision of the psalmists, prophets, and Jewish leaders — most notably 2 Samuel 7, in which God established his eternal covenant with David.
Nevertheless, there is a very definite and intentional pattern to the texts chosen for Messiah. Besides, if Handel had composed music for every passage that refers to Christ the Messiah, he’d have set the whole Bible to music! As Block wrote, we can only speculate as to how they determined which verses would make the cut, but we can be thankful that they have left us this legacy of wonderful music about our Lord!
Perhaps Handel anticipated this speculation, as his next thought was to write for us this beautiful and contemplative instrumental interlude before taking us to the first New Testament texts of the oratorio… which we’ll encounter tomorrow!