The Irresistible Good News in Handel’s ‘Messiah’
Thousands gather in the concert halls of Boston each Christmas season, brought to tears and their feet by the gospel of Christ, roused at the fulfilled prophecy of Isaiah: “For unto us a child is born.”
Even 260 years since Messiah composer George Frideric Handel died, the holiday tradition of performing his famed oratorio vibrantly paints with music the story of Christ, reminding us that the Word is alive, and Christ has come. Upon composing the piece, Handel is said to have exclaimed, “I have seen the face of God!”
Messiah hits the heart of Christian faith—Part I the hope and prophecy of a Messiah, Part II Christ’s suffering and despair, and Part III the triumph of redemption—becoming an annual tradition to perform for Christmas and Easter across countries, cultures, languages and styles.
Messiah’s enduring popularity is thanks to the musical genius of composer Handel, devout Protestant faith of librettist Charles Jennens and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Plagued with depression and tragedy, Jennens found hope in Scripture and joy in Handel’s music. He married the two by gathering selections from the Bible—linking Old Testament prophecies with their New Testament fulfillments—and presenting the evangelistic libretto (collection of lyrics) to Handel, proposing the composer set it to music.
Handel brought the words to life by painting a musical picture, illuminating the Word of God in a new light. He employed a linguistic quality for the instruments and voices, evoking themes in the words—the respective high “mountain and hill made low” dropping low; vocalizing “I will shake” with earth-shattering power. And quoting Luke 2:14, the chorus sings an absolutely radiant “glory to God in the highest” and a calm “peace on earth,” sounding exactly like what human minds might imagine being the heavenly host.
The technique is so evocative a story of its power goes down in history. The premiere’s alto soloist Susannah Cibbers was embroiled in a scandalous and heartbreaking divorce that brought her public shame. Performing the aria of “He was despised,” she sang a story of Jesus not unlike what she experienced: “He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” At her moving performance, a cleric in the audience was compelled to call out, “Woman, for this, all your sins be forgiven!”
The episode was one of the profound moments in the creation of Messiah, when the themes of Scripture transcend technique and words. Another was when Handel dedicated proceeds to benefit inmates of a debtors’ prison, setting them free—much like the sacrifice of Christ paying our debt of sin to set us free.
As a Christian musician who has experienced Messiah in the roles of conductor, soloist and teacher, Department of Music Assistant Professor Jamie Hillman has felt a deep connection with Handel’s masterpiece. After conducting its overture in a masterclass for his Boston University doctorate program, he says, the room was absolutely still, in awe of his connection with the music. “This is the art of music as Christians . . . This is our heritage, even as Christians in the 21st century.”
But he has also seen Messiah preach the power of Christ to secular audiences. A leading conductor once told Hillman and his chorus that he aims to hire Christian soloists when performing major sacred works like Messiah, “because [Christian musicians] understand it, [and] connect to it in a way that someone who doesn’t believe [does not].”
“I’m confident,” Hillman says, “Messiah came from Handel’s soul.”
Whether performing Messiah or simply listening, each encounter with the piece can lead to discovering deeper and more lifelike meaning in the Bible.
In this Christmas season, remember that the Word lives and came to us through Jesus Christ. The words are true, they are our hope and they are irresistibly inspiring, from the tender “Comfort ye” to the majestic “Amen.”