Messiah (an oratorio, not an opera) is acclaimed as the greatest musical masterpiece ever composed in England (though not by an Englishman, as George Frideric Handel was not Anglo-Saxon but Saxon by birth, originally Georg Friedrich Haendel). It has been a popular favourite from the time of its first performance on the 13th of April in 1742, before an Irish audience, in Dublin. There were seven hundred people packed into the hall (to increase the space, they were requested not to wear hoops or swords for the occasion). The Dublin Journal enthused about ‘the exquisite delight’ that the sublime music and the elevated words afforded ‘to the admiring crowded audience’.
The date, in April, is perhaps surprising: we are used to hearing it in the Christmas season, not at Easter; but before we start accusing the Irish of blundering, we need to be told that Handel and his librettist Charles Jennens thought it belonged at the end of Lent or in Passion week. In my lifetime I can recall Messiah performances in Autumn rather than Summer, in Australasia; but in the British Isles the season at Eastertide is Spring, which certainly suits the drama of the birth, death, resurrection, and reappearance of ‘the King of Glory’, the Messiah.
The word 'messiah' is another typical English failure to pronounce foreign words, in this case a Hebrew and Aramaic term meaning ‘anointed’, particularly referring to the expected saviour (the Lord’s anointed one’) who would come and rescue his people Israel from their oppressors, as King David had saved them from the Philistines (from which the word Palestinians is derived, by the way). In the Christian New Testament scriptures, maashiyakh was translated into Greek as khristos, ‘anointed’, and this passed into English as ‘christ’. We should say ‘Jesus the Christ’ and ‘Jesus the Messiah’, but ‘Christ’ has virtually become a surname rather than a title. And notice that the oratorio’s name/title is simply Messiah (though it really ought to be called ‘The Messiah’!).
Strange to tell, the first performance in England was given a cool reception. It was presented in the Covent Garden Theatre (an opera house), and the soloists included two women of the theatre (opera singers); this was deemed to be unseemly for a sacred work in which the central Christian beliefs were portrayed. For many years Handel had pleased the music-lovers of London with his Italian operas (he composed fifty); but fashions changed, and religious oratorios, with no staging or costumes, became the order of the day (his total was twenty-three). In 1741 he composed Messiah in the short period from 22 August to 14 September (considered by some to be a miracle of divine inspiration); and in October he produced Samson (though the spectacular ‘Let the bright Seraphim’ was still lacking).
In February-March 1743, the lusty Samson had eight outings, while Messiah had three. At one of these, King George II stood during the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, acknowledging that he was in the presence of a greater ruler than himself (the King of kings and Lord of lords); and this is said to be the origin of the custom whereby audiences stand to attention at this point (the end of Part 2).
With regard to the vocal forces employed by Handel, we know from accounts of the performance at the Foundling Hospital in 1754 that the choir had less than twenty singers, all male, with boy sopranos for the treble line, and men singing the alto, tenor, and bass parts. There were five soloists, including three women (two sopranos and a contralto); on this occasion there were no castrato voices; and the soloists sang the choruses as well as their own pieces.
The Meaning of the Text of Messiah
For the first time in my life, I have decided to look closely at the words and try to understand what Charles Jennens meant by his collection of extracts from the Bible, in his libretto entitled Messiah.
Surprisingly, his first quotation is in Latin and is not Biblical: MAJORA CANAMUS, ‘Of greater things let us sing’, from the Eclogues (IV) of the Roman poet Virgil (author of the great epic poem The Aeneid, relating the destruction of Troy through the stratagem of the wooden horse, and the voyage of Aeneas to Carthage and ultimately to Italy, to establish Rome, leaving Queen Dido in distress and creating eternal enmity between the two cities). Handel did not set these two words to music (and I cannot make the themes of the Overture fit them!). The reason Jennens quoted this sentence was that Virgil, in that context, penned some lines which are reminiscent of the prophecies of Isaiah about a future saviour.
Jennens added a piece from Paul’s First Letter to Timothy (3:16), which encompasses the theme of the oratorio (I will place some of the connections in brackets): ‘God was manifested in the flesh (Unto us a child is born ... the mighty God), justified by the Spirit (the Holy Spirit does not actually appear here, unlike the Mass, though the ‘Wonderful Counsellor’ might be invoked for the Paraklete/ Advocate/ Comforter), seen of angels (the heavenly host appearing to shepherds at the birth), preached among the Gentiles (The Lord gave the word, great was the company of the preachers, their sound is gone out into all lands), believed on in the world (I know that my redeemer liveth), received up in glory (Thou art gone up on high; Hallelujah; Blessing and honour and glory ... unto the Lamb)’. Perhaps the overture covers the essence of these ideas.
At the outset, please note that I am endeavoring to clarify the text, not debunk it, even if I might sound somewhat irreverent at times.
The libretto consists entirely of Bible quotations: Old Testament passages which predict the coming of the Messiah are applied to ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’, using extracts from the New Testament.
The odd thing is that the name ‘Jesus’ only appears in a chorus near the end, “But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ”, which is usually omitted!
The first section of the work comprises prophetic poetic passages from the Hebrew books of Isaiah (Ch 40), Haggai (Ch 2), and Malachi (Ch 3), all of which have been seen as predicting the coming of the Christ, the Messiah. This is certainly what the first Christians did: they ‘searched’ the Hebrew Scriptures, ‘the Old Testament’ (or ‘Old Covenant’) for prefigurations of Jesus Christ and the New Covenant.
But why does it all begin with ‘Comfort ye my people’ and ‘speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem’ (Isaiah 40:1-5)? Well, we should start by looking at a less archaic translation of the Hebrew text: “Comfort my people, console them, says your God. Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and cry out to her that her war service is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned”.
The ‘people’ are the Jews, who had been transported from their homeland Judah, and from Jerusalem their capital city, to Babylonia (`Iraq), by King Nebukadnessar in 586 BCE (before the current/Christian era). In Psalm 137 we hear the well-know lament of these exiled Jews: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Sion (Jerusalem)”. (Incidentally, at the end of this psalm is a terrible curse on the babies of Babylon, which is not read out in churches, and which we should not connect with the present situation in `Iraq.) The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel had seen the exile in Babylonia (for 70 years) as God’s punishment for the sins of his chosen people; but here was a prophet telling them that their time as prisoners of war was completed (‘her warfare is accomplished’), their sins were forgiven (her iniquity is pardoned’), and they could now return home to Jerusalem.
“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”. The ‘voice crying in the wilderness’ is proverbial, as also ‘prepare the way of the Lord’; but this is how we should read the lines: “A voice is calling: In the wilderness prepare Yahweh’s road, make a straight highway through the desert for our God”. This is saying that a first-class road will be built, right across the Syrian Desert, between `Iraq and Israel, so that the Jews could travel directly to their home country.
“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill laid low: the crooked [shall be made] straight and the rough places plain”. The ‘exalted’ language hides the meaning from us. In ‘plain’ speaking, it would not be a thoroughfare with potholes (‘the rough places made plain’) and dangerous bends (‘the crooked made straight’) and steep hills: “Every valley shall be raised up, and every mountain and hill shall be levelled”. (I once stated publicly that the Palmerston North city council was seeking to fulfill this prophecy in the town square .)
“And the glory of the Lord (Yahweh) shall be revealed, and all flesh (humankind) shall see it together”. It will be a glorious procession over the plain on a splendid avenue (perhaps lined with ‘plane’ trees?) for all the world to watch and wonder at.
But the idea of preparing the way for the coming of the Lord in the wilderness persisted; Mark’s gospel (1:3) assigns this role to John the Baptizer, preaching and baptizing in the wild, and Jennens would have had this in mind.
Jennens leaves the Isaiah prophecies for a moment, and turns to Haggai, a prophet who speaks to the returned exiles in the second year of King Darius of Iran (520 BCE). The message from God is that the Jerusalem Temple (built by Solomon and destroyed by Nebukadnessar) will return to its former splendour. “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” (Haggai 2:6-7). Presumably Jennens wants ‘the desire of all nations’ to refer to the Messiah. Unfortunately this is not right. The word translated ‘desire’ denotes ‘desirable things’, and this means that the ‘treasure’ of all the other peoples (the so-called ‘Gentiles’) will be brought to Jerusalem to adorn the Temple. In a big ‘shake-up’, the earth and its people will yield up all the silver and gold, which rightfully belongs to Yahweh the Creator, as we are told in the following verse (Haggai 2:8). To my mind, this is reminiscent of the Israelites leaving Egypt at the time of the Exodus, and ‘borrowing’ jewellery from their Gentile neighbours for the worship of their God in the wilderness, but never intending to return. However, the ultimate expectation is that when the Messiah arrives the whole human population would look to Jerusalem as the centre of the world and would come to worship God there, and “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares” (Isaiah 2:1-5).
And then we hear the prophet Malakhi (3:1-3), in the 5th Century BCE, when the Temple had been rebuilt, but corruption had crept into the system. “The Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant whom ye delight in ... he is like a refiner’s fire ... and he will purify the sons of Levi (the priests)”. Here we are invited to think of Jesus going into the temple and ‘cleansing’ it (Matthew 21:12-13; John 2:13-17).
Returning to Isaiah (7:14), the announcement is made: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (meaning) ‘God [El]( is) with us’ [`immanu]. Christians have long cherished this as foretelling ‘the virginal conception’ (Matthew 1:21-23). However, the Hebrew word simply means ‘a young woman’, not specifically a virgin.
The extract from Isaiah 40 is now extended, quoting verse 9: “O thou that tellest good tidings to Sion”, that is, the prophet, who is to declare that God has come to save the people. Next, Isaiah 60:1-3: “Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee ... and Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising”. The context shows that this relates to foreigners bringing their wealth to Jerusalem, to enhance its reputation and (as with Haggai, above) to adorn the Temple. Here we would be expected to think of the gifts of the Magi, namely gold, frankincense, and myrrh, at the birth of Jesus (Matthew 2:11), though magi were Persian priests, not kings.
Then a prediction of a son of King David’s line who would set things right and rule justly (Isaiah 9:2, 6): “For unto us a child is born ... and his name shall be called Wonderful (omit the comma) Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace”. Christians might well find here the Trinitarian Godhead (‘the mighty God), with the Father (‘Everlasting Father’), Son (‘Prince of Peace’), and the Holy Spirit the Paraklete (‘Wonderful Counsellor’).
Here follows the scene of the angels announcing the Messiah’s birth to “shepherds, abiding in the field”, culminating in the song of the heavenly host: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will towards men” (Luke 2:8-14). Again there is controversy over translation, here from the Greek (not Hebrew) text: literally “peace on earth among people of goodwill”, perhaps meaning “people on whom he bestows his favour”.
The prophet Zekhariah (9:9-10) provides a piece about the King coming to Jerusalem: “He is the righteous Saviour and he shall speak peace unto the heathen”(the nations).
The healing power of the King is expressed in words from Isaiah (35:5-6) concerning the blind, deaf, lame, and dumb, taken as referring to the therapeutic work of Jesus. Again from Isaiah (40:11), “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd”, hinting at the stories of Jesus feeding thousands in the wilderness, and his declaration, “I am the good Shepherd”.
From Matthew (11:28-30) we hear Christ’s call to put on the yoke of discipleship (changed from first person to third person): “Come unto him all ye that labour ... and he will give you rest .... Take his yoke upon you and learn of [or from] him .... his yoke is easy, and his burden is light” (or ‘burthen’, as the vocal score has it).
In Part 2, John the Baptizer’s utterance regarding Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), leads into selections from the songs of the suffering Servant of Yahweh (Isaiah 50:6, 53:3-8), “a man of sorrows”, understood to be the Messiah and related to the Passion of the Christ, leading up to his crucifixion (as portrayed in Mel Gibson’s movie of that name). “He was cut off out of the land of the living, for the transgressions of thy people was he stricken (struck down)” (Isaiah 53:8). Various psalms are quoted for additional details, notably Psalms 22 and 24, but not 23 (Yahweh as our shepherd)!
The resurrection from the tomb and the ascension to Heaven are conveyed by lines from the Psalms: “But thou didst not leave his soul in hell” (Ps 16:10); and “Lift up your heads, O ye gates ... and the King of glory shall come in” (Ps 24:7-10). “Thou art gone up on high” (Ps 68:18).
As we saw earlier, the preaching mission of the Apostles is suggested in lines from Psalm 68 (11) and Romans 10 (15, 18): “the company of the preachers” take the Gospel “unto the ends of the world”. The hostility they encounter is brought out through selections from Psalm 2 , which speaks of kings and rulers rising up “against the Lord and his Anointed” (the Messiah/Christ). Ultimately the victory is theirs, and God is praised (with words from the Revelation/Apocalypse, 19:6, 11:15, 19:16): “Halleluyah (Praise Yahweh), for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. The kingdom of this world has 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”.
Part 3 covers the relationship between the Christ and his followers: since he has overcome death, they may likewise be resurrected. “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, words from the book of Job (19:25-26), another suffering servant of God, introduce the theme of resurrection, and lead into extensive quotations from Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15: “For now is Christ risen from the dead ... For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive ... Behold I tell you a mystery ... The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised ... O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave where is thy victory? ... But thanks be to God who giveth us the victory, through our Lord Jesus Christ”.
An extract from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (8:31-34), often omitted, reminds us that Christ “is at the right hand of God”. The culmination (lines from Revelation 5) depicts the angels in Heaven and all creatures on Earth singing the praises of God and ‘the Lamb’ (Christ, the sin-bearing Redeemer and Saviour).
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by his blood, to receive power, ... and glory, and blessing ... for ever and ever. Amen.”
The Amen of affirmation and acclamation(“I believe, I assent”) is sounded repeatedly with trumpets soaring above.
Handel wrote at the end of the score: S.D.G. (To God alone be the glory).
Brian Colless PhD ThD