For many of us, Handel’s Messiah has transcended its place as a great work of art and has taken on the status of an almost canonical spiritual text. There are few works in the classical repertory that are so well-known and well-loved by such a variety of people.
Even people who don’t usually care much for classical music are familiar with this piece. Is there any other oratorio that could host sing-along performances without the participants fumbling and stumbling over the words? How many artistic expressions of theology or spirituality have opened as many hearts to hearing the words of Scripture as has this magnificent piece of music? It is certainly a piece that has inspired many with its beauty and its testimony to the gospel.
Yet by now, the soaring “Hallelujah Chorus” is so familiar that it might seem almost impossible to hear and appreciate Handel’s famed composition in fresh ways. Thankfully, Jonathan Keates’s slim volume, Messiah: The Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece, helps us do just that, partly by reminding us that there was a time when it wasn’t so enthusiastically embraced because it transgressed some of the standard expectations for an oratorio and strove for something new.
One strength of Keates’s book is the reminder that it is not only the music of Messiah that is extraordinary. So is the libretto, penned by Charles Jennens, with whom Handel had already shared a series of collaborations. And it is the text of Messiah that makes it so unique. At the time of its appearance, most oratorios told stories through a plot line and delineated characters, with plenty of room for dramatic embellishment.
But Messiah doesn’t attempt to tell a specific ...1