“What raises Messiah, as a whole, above all Handel’s other works, is its splendour of architectural design,” observes the English scholar Basil Lam. It is a design in which each of the 53 numbers is fitted carefully into place, textually as well as musically. Everything moves purposefully toward the climactic “Amen.”
There are 20 choruses or choral anthems, 20 solo arias, 1 duet aria, and 12 solo recitatives (Scripture narratives) in Messiah. The choruses serve many functions representing, for example, the prophet in “For unto Us a Child Is Born”; the angelic host in “Glory to God in the Highest”; the congregational response of sinners in “All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray”; the mocking crowd at the cross in “He Trusted in God that He Would Deliver Him”; the angels in heaven in “Lift Up Your Heads, O Ye Gates” and “Let All the Angels of God Worship Him”; missionaries in “Let Us Break Their Bonds Asunder”; the saints in heaven in “Hallelujah!”; victorious saints in “If God Be for Us”; and all creation in “Worthy Is the Lamb.” The solos effectively emphasize individual response and intense emotion. The recitatives narrate events and may facilitate modulations between numbers. Many of the solos and their succeeding choruses are indivisible both textually and musically.
The “grandeur” of the design of Messiah portrays the drama of redemption from the prophecies of Christ’s coming to the glory of his eternal reign. To comprehend where each number properly fits into this immense panorama is to see clearly how the libretto, or text, is organized.
The following summary, though simplified, will help clarify and reveal the several layers of organization, from the overall theme and the three primarysections down to individual subsections. ...1
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