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 biblical story. Instead, it weaves together passages of Scripture to offer a deeper meditation on the magnificent sweep of God’s redemptive work. Keates gives significant attention to Jennens’s accomplishment and provides a brief window into the man himself. What Jennens offered was more than just a biblical narrative—he was presenting a theology of what Christ accomplished. According to Keates, Jennens “cherished a belief system based on the concept of mystery and revelation, at the centre of which stood the figure of Christ the Redeemer, wondrously resurrected from the tomb and promising an equal triumph over death to all who truly acknowledged Him.” Instead of focusing on the events of Jesus’ life, Messiah emphasizes their implications for all humanity.
For all its theological profundity and glorious music, Messiah was not an immediate overwhelming success. In fact, as Keates reminds us, after its Dublin premiere it received a great deal of criticism when the performances moved to London. Some of the pious felt that it was not appropriate for Scripture to be treated in this manner as part of a dramatic composition, especially one performed in a secular concert hall. But Handel had no qualms about taking the sacred into the secular sphere. Only when Messiah began raising money for charity during its London run did the controversy die down.
One quibble with this otherwise commendable study is the way it steers clear of giving much attention to the spiritual lives of Messiah’s creators, other than indicating that they were both traditional Anglicans. Keates dismisses some of Handel’s recorded statements regarding his spiritual state during the writing of Messiah (such as that he had a vision of “the great God Himself”) as likely a “pious fiction.” But he doesn’t reveal what led him to such a conclusion. Considering the spiritual power of the finished oratorio, it doesn’t seem that much of a stretch to see it as the product of some pretty extraordinary inspiration. Even if there was no literal vision involved, the work is certainly visionary—especially considering that Handel composed the music in only three weeks.
It is hard to imagine that the “Hallelujah Chorus” isn’t part of heaven’s own hymn book, with all its breathless rush toward proclaiming the majesty and glory of God, gathering intensity as it builds. But that is just one moment in a larger work that highlights the promises of God, the depth of our human folly, and the sacrifice given by God to restore humankind.
The wedding of the words of Scripture, so carefully chosen by Jennens, with the transcendent music of Handel is something of a musical miracle. And like all miracles, any attempt at understanding how it came to pass will always fall a little short of fully explaining why it works as it does. But Keates’s book does what it needs to do in awakening an urge to hear Handel’s masterwork again, and now with a bit deeper understanding.
Terry Glaspey is the author of 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Baker Books).
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