Background and Depth of Handel’s Messiah

I did something this week that I have never done before–I listened to the whole of Handel’s Messiah (two sittings).  But the reason was not because I’m a big fan of classical choral music.  Actually my musical tastes are much more eclectic and not that sophisticated. The reason I listened was in appreciation for the theological depth and purpose behind the oratorio.

At the end of this post you will find resource links, I’ll keep my observations short and provide the links for the curious.

Music

George Frederic Handel was a famous opera composer, but the popularity of opera was waning, his health was not good and he had contemplated retirement.  His main supported and collaborator, Charles Jennens, compiled the Libretto (text) and ask Handel to compose an oratorio.  Handel completed the whole oratorio–all 2 hours and 15 minutes long, with its 3 parts and 53 movements–in 24 days.

Since I am not musical, what I was primarily interested in was the text (Libretto) and the purpose.

Libretto

As a member in the Church of England in the early 1700s Charles Jennes was concerned with the growing challenge of Deism—a belief that rejected the reality of divine intervention into human affairs and the deity of Jesus Christ.

So Jennens carefully selected 73 verses primarily from the Old Testament though they are from 7 Old and 7 New Testament books.  Most are prophecies which spoke of Messiah…

His promised birth,
His death on the cross and victory over a rebellious world
and resurrection which secures redemption for individuals and subsequent exaltation of Messiah.

Jennens aim was to show what Scripture taught.  That God does involve Himself powerfully and purposefully in the affairs of man.  And that Jesus was Messiah, fulfilling the prophecies and provide salvation.

One commentator on Messiah declared that it is a “remarkable confluence of Hebrew theology and biblical truth, Italian operatic genius, English class, and German piety.”[1]

Purpose

Jennens purpose started out theological, but after writing the composition Handel felt that the purpose was evangelistic. Rather than have the Oratorio only sung in churches he schedule performances in theaters and had “secular” sings perform the leads in order to make it accessible to the masses.

First performed during the Easter season, April 1742—we traditionally hear just the first of three section (though the Hallelujah chorus is moved from the conclusion of the second part to the first).

At the end of the composition, above his initials Handel wrote the 3 letters SDG—Soli Deo Gloria—To God alone the glory.

Observations

A wonderful reminder of the reality of God’s active guiding of history to His desired conclusion for His glory and our good.

Jennens and Handel used what was in their day entertainment to reach people with a deep true.

They did not let critics dissuade their taking something “sacred” to the masses.

And while we think of Handel’s Messiah at Christmas, it was first performed at Easter, and it doesn’t end with the birth or the resurrection, but it focus is the conclusion–the exaltation and glorification of Jesus Christ, Messiah.  He is not just the babe in the cradle or the savior on the cross, but the King wearing His crown on His throne.

May He be glorified in me.

Resources

Daniel I. Block http://www.sbts.edu/documents/icw/messiah.pdf

Ben Witherington http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/bibleandculture/2009/12/handels-messiah-the-story-behind-the-classic.html

Mark Roberts http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/series/handels-messiah-an-unexpected-easter-masterpiece/

A performance of Handel’s Messiah lasts somewhere around 137 minutes, give or take five minutes depending on the pace of the conductor. The birth of Jesus (“For unto us a child is born”) comes just about 25% into the performance. The resurrection (“But thou didst not leave His soul in hell”) occurs just before the 60% point, which leaves 40% of the entire Messiah to focus on the fact and the implications of the resurrection. A substantial portion of this 40% concerns the resurrection, not of Jesus, but of those who believe in him.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Structure_of_Handel’s_Messiah

http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Messiah

List each of the 53 selections (47 movements) of the 73 verses with the ability to listen to each individually.

Scriptures used

Biblical Passages--Messiah

This list is from Daniel I. Block, see link above.

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[1] Daniel I. Block, Handel’s Messiah: Biblical Theological Perspective http://www.sbts.edu/documents/icw/messiah.pdf

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