“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. The comprehensive scope of Messiah is truly breathtaking.
In studying the libretto, one may notice various subsidiary themes and the ways they are developed throughout the work. For one example, the theme of Christ as the Lamb of God is manifest in such images as the Good Shepherd of “He Shall Feed His Flock” (No. 20) who gently carried the lambs, the Lamb of God who is sacrificed for the sins of the world in “Behold the Lamb of God” (No. 22), and the triumphant Lamb in “Worthy Is the Lamb” (No. 53).
The provision of a wordbook was a common practice of Handel’s day, enabling the listener to follow what was being sung. In the same way, the complete text of Messiah is provided here with accompanying summary statements to aid the reader/listener in better understanding and enjoying the depth and scope of meaning in this message of redemption.
Messiah: The Promise Of Redemption Part I:
The listener should understand that Part I has a dual but inseparable theme: The coming of the Messiah was prophesied, and these prophecies were fulfilled in Christ. The prophecies comprise the oratorio’s first 12 numbers, and can be organized under four headings: (1) A message of comfort (Nos. 1–4); (2) A message of chastisement (5–7); (3) A message of confidence (8–9); and (4) A message of consolation.
A Message Of Comfort
1. SINFONIA (OVERTURE)
2. RECITATIVE (Tenor)
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God; speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem; and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
3. AIR (Tenor)
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight and the rough places plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed; and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.
A Message Of Chastisement
5. RECITATIVE (Bass)
Thus saith the Lord of hosts: Yet once a little while and I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all nations; and the desire of all nations shall come. The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in; behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts.
Haggai 2:6–9; Malachi 3:1
6. AIR (Alto)
But who may abide the day of his coming, and who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner’s fire.
And he shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.
A Message Of Confidence
8. RECITATIVE (Alto)
Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel, “God with us.”
Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23
9. AIR (Alto) and CHORUS
O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain. O thou that tellest good tiding to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah: Behold your God! Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.
Isaiah 40:9; 60:1
A Message Of Consolation
10. RECITATIVE (Bass)
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee, and the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.
11. AIR (Bass)
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.
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.
The second part of the theme of Part I is emphasized in numbers 13–31. It describes the coming of the Messiah as fulfilled in Christ. This falls naturally into three sections: (1) The advent of the Messiah (13–37); (2) The ministry of the Messiah, in which he comes both to the Jewish people—“thy King”—and to the Gentiles—“unto the heathen”; and (3) The invitation of the Messiah to “come unto him” (19–21).
13. PIFA (PASTORAL SYMPHONY)
14a. RECITATIVE (Soprano)
There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
14b. RECITATIVE (Soprano)
And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.
15. RECITATIVE (Soprano)
And the angel said unto them: Fear not; for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people; for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
16. RECITATIVE (Soprano)
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying:
Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will toward men.
18. AIR (Soprano)
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, thy King cometh unto thee! He is the righteous Saviour, and he shall speakpeace unto the heathen.
19. RECITATIVE (Alto)
Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.
20. AIR (Alto and Soprano)
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.
Come unto him, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and 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.
His yoke is easy, and his burthen is light.
Part Ii: The Price Of Redemption
In Part II, dual rejection of the Messiah is evident: he is rejected by his people, and he is put to death. However, he rises from the dead and ascends triumphantly to heaven. The gospel then is proclaimed throughout all the world, but it is rejected by the majority of humankind. When God executes his shattering judgment over the unbelieving nations, the gospel is vindicated and God is gloriously praised.
The first section of this part shows how the gospel is perfected: (1) The suffering of the Messiah (22–26); (2) The death of the Messiah (27–31); (3) The resurrection of the Messiah (32); and (4) The triumphant ascension of the Messiah (33–36).
Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.
23. AIR (Alto)
He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He gave his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to them that plucked off the hair. He hid not his face from shame and spitting.
Isaiah 53:3; 50:6
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows! He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him.
And with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way. And the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
27. RECITATIVE (Tenor)
All they that see him laugh him to scorn; they shoot out their lips and shake their heads, saying:
He trusted in God that he would deliver him; let him deliver him, if he delight in him.
29. RECITATIVE (Tenor)
Thy rebuke hath broken his heart: He is full of heaviness. He looked for some to have pity on him, but there was no man, neither found he any to comfort him.
30. AIR (Tenor)
Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow.
31. RECITATIVE (Soprano)
He was cut off out of the land of the living; for the transgressions of thy people was he stricken.
32. AIR (Soprano)
But thou didst not leave his soul in hell; nor didst thou suffer thy Holy One to see corruption.
His Triumphant Ascension
Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.
34. RECITATIVE (Tenor)
Unto which of the angels said he at any time: Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee?
Let all the angels of God worship him.
36. AIR (Alto)
Thou art gone up on high; thou hast led captivity captive, and received gifts for men, yea, even for thine enemies, that the Lord God might dwell among them. Psalm 68:18
The second section of Part II, numbers 37–79, describes the proclamation of the gospel throughout the world. This is the pivotal segment of Messiah; it is the turning point. The rest of the work considers the opposite destinies of each individual according to that person’s response to the gospel.
The Lord gave the word; great was the company of the preachers.
38. AIR (Soprano)
How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things.
Their sound is gone out into all lands, and their words unto the ends of the world.
The third section of Part II (40–41) deals with the second rejection: by the majority of humankind, who desire to assert themselves above God.
40. AIR (Bass)
Why do the nations so furiously rage together, why do the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord, and his Anointed.
Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast away their yokes from us.
In the final segment of Part II (42–44), the gospel is vindicated when God judges those who refuse it. For this he will receive praise in heaven—the real significance of the “Hallelujah” chorus.
42. RECITATIVE (Tenor)
He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn; the Lord shall have them in derision.
43. AIR (Tenor)
Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.
Hallelujah! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth. The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever. King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. Hallelujah!
Revelation 19:6; 11:15; 19:16
Part Iii: The Power Of Redemption
In Part III, the power of redemption can be seen as available to all those who accept the Messiah. All who accept the preaching of the gospel enter into a special personal relationship with the Redeemer. The risen Messiah conquers the final enemy, Death, and unites his own people eternally with himself. Together, the Messiah’s redeemed people praise the victorious and enthroned Lamb of God for his great redemptive work. The oratorio concludes with the great “Worthy Is the Lamb” trilogy, with its final affirming “Amen.”
The first seven numbers of Part III (45–51) show the Messiah our Redeemer, and emphasize the resurrection of the believer.
45. AIR (Soprano)
I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first-fruits of them that sleep.
Job 19:25–26; 1 Corinthians 15:20
Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
1 Corinthians 15:21
47. RECITATIVE (Bass)
Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.
1 Corinthians 15:11–12
48. AIR (Bass)
The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
1 Corinthians 15:52–53
49. RECITATIVE (Alto)
Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory!
1 Corinthians 15:54
50. DUET (Alto and Tenor)
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.
1 Corinthians 15:55–56
But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 15:57
The emphasis of number 52 is the Messiah our Intercessor. It is an ecstatic expression of confidence of the believer’s present standing in Christ before God.
52. AIR (Soprano)
If God be for us, who can be against us? Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is at the right hand of God, who makes intercession for us.
Romans 8:31, 33–34
The final number (53) is a choral trilogy, and worships the Messiah our Eternal King.
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by his blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.
Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever. Amen.
Revelation 5:12, 9, 13
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