Messiah Blog: Day 9

Note: To start from the beginning of this series, or to access the table of contents, click here.

Today’s post brings us to the close of Part I, which has focused on the Old Testament anticipation of the advent of the Messiah, and the New Testament fulfillment of this expectation. With most modern performances of Messiah taking place during the Advent season, programs will often include only selections from Part I, with the addition of the famed “Hallelujah Chorus”, which is actually the concluding number from Part II. This really is a shame, because, not only are audiences missing out on so much great music, but they also miss out on the overall picture painted of Jesus throughout the oratorio.

Yesterday we read that these two final numbers pertain to the pastoral ministry of Christ. Both also feature some great examples of tone painting, as the music plays off the words in several instances. In #18, the music reflects the rest which Christ offers His flock. In #19, the tone changes, becoming very bouncy and “light”. The manner in which the melody jumps around symbolizes freedom from the oppressive legalism of the Pharisees which provides the context for these verses in Matthew 11. Personally, though, I wonder if Handel isn’t also enjoying a bit of a play on words, as the melismatic sequences sung on the word “easy” are anything but! The complex note runs would be quite challenging to sing under any circumstances, but doing it on the “ee” vowel makes it doubly so. Don’t believe me? Try it yourself!

#18: Aria (Alto + Soprano)
Isaiah 40:11 (Alto) — He shall feed His flock like a shepherd; and He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.
Matthew 11:28-29 (Soprano) — Come unto Him, all ye that labour, come unto Him that are heavy laden, an He will give you rest. Take His yoke upon you, and learn of Him, for He is meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

#19: Chorus
Matthew 11:30 — His yoke is easy, and his burden is light.

In addition to the comments we read yesterday, Block’s essay points out this pattern:

The manner in which Messiah adapts the quotations of Jesus is worth a comment… Messiah suppresses the drama by taking words out of Jesus’ mouth and transforming first person statements into third person assertions. This pattern begins with this adaptation of Jesus’ tender appeal in Matthew 11:28-30 and it will continue throughout the oratorio. In a sense this depersonalizes the Messiah, but at the same time it serves to objectify the image. I have not been able to find out who was responsible for this shift, Jennens or Handel, but it seems to me that this is fundamental to the oratorio’s style and should therefore be attributed to Handel.

Throughout the libretto, whenever the Biblical text reflects the words of Jesus, his words are changed so as to reflect the character of the rest of the texts, which are all third person statements about the Messiah. Thus, instead of “Come to me”, “I will give”, and “my yoke”, we have “Come to Him”, “He will give”, and “His yoke”, etc. This assists the composer musically as well as thematically, as it allows him to have Christ’s words sung by the chorus or any of the four soloists (such as the soprano solo in #18), which would present challengers were the statements to remain in the first person.

The ending of #19 also brings us a sense of finality, as it closes with the most definitively conclusive cadence yet encountered. To the listener, this is a very pleasing resolution leading into an intermission. Tomorrow starts Part II with a decidedly darker tone…

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