Many musical choices are available to the followers of Jesus in the modern world. Various factors affect our choice of music: appropriateness, preference, musical taste, musical training, and occasion. There are, of course, times when our selection of music will not necessarily be Biblical or religious in content. Classical music, opera, musicals, ballet, and folk music may also be of interest. Enjoyment of music as a recreational pastime can be restful and pleasing, and the vast library of musical literature provides a wide selection of worthwhile and wholesome choices. For the disciple, the primary guiding factor should always be what is appropriate:
"If there be any virtue, if there be any praise, think on these things" (Phil 4:8).
We are privileged to have some of the world’s great music available in high quality recordings at a very reasonable price. Wonderful orchestras, disciplined choirs, exceptional soloists, ensembles and singers can be heard readily in our home or car, or at live presentations. The training and skill of musicians today, combined with quality of recording and amplification systems, make listening to music a delightful experience.
For the disciple the "Messiah" by G.F. Handel will likely be considered one of the very worthwhile musical compositions available. It has rich orchestral music, exciting choral selections, dramatic solos, and words that are taken from inspiring Scripture passages. Through the words of the Bible, the story of Jesus unfolds in music: Messianic prophecies, Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, ending in events related to his return. Music is written in ways that reflect the narrative and emotion of events related in Scripture.
While some disciples will not find music from the "Messiah" to their musical preference, many will find both the musical style and creative presentation enjoyable, helpful and stimulating. There are well over 100 recordings of the complete score of the "Messiah" available on the market today. These have been recorded over many years in various countries of the world. In addition, there are countless recordings containing instrumental, choral and individual selections from the "Messiah". The choruses are available separately from the rest of the oratorio.
For those interested in music like the "Messiah", many will feel this is one of the most thrilling and encouraging oratorios available. This is not an overstatement. More than a few Christadelphians regard the "Messiah" as one of the finest musical expressions of reflection and appreciation of the exciting message of salvation through Jesus, the Son of God. It is thrilling to sing and inspiring to hear.
Live presentations are vibrant with an element of drama. Professional choirs are usually well worth hearing, but tickets are often expensive. Local productions of the "Messiah" by community choirs should not be ruled out and are sometimes surprising in quality and presentation. They are also much less expensive, as well as being more accessible than larger venues.
A highly recommended CD recording of the "Messiah" is an extremely well produced edition by Philips (Product number 412 538-2). This recording features Sir Colin Davis conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. It is sung in English and has four very enjoyable and capable soloists.
One outstanding feature of this recording is the piece "And with His Stripes We are Healed". This chorus was written with orchestral accompaniment. But in this recording Sir Colin Davis has chosen to have it sung a cappella (without accompaniment). It is sung very softly, without the orchestra, and it provides a startling contrast to the faster and louder selections on either side of this chorus. Sung so softly, it conveys the pathos, the sublime personal meaning of Jesus suffering for sin. It almost forces the listener to strain to hear every precious word. One is left breathless when the chorus is finished.
In summary, listening to the "Messiah" is a wonderful musical experience made particularly more meaningful because of our familiarity and understanding of the Scriptures presented in this oratorio. Take the opportunity sometime soon to hear this beautiful music and its lovely words of Divine purpose and fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
Ken Curry (Toronto East, ON)
In the eighteenth century, when Bibles were comparatively very expensive, oratorios were designed to educate people by setting significant portions of the Holy Scriptures to music, employing solo singers, choir and orchestra. Oratorio means "oratory by music". George Frederick Handel (1685-1759), the German-born composer (naturalized English from 1726), was one of the foremost musicians who employed this particular dramatic form as seen in "Messiah". (Other composers include Beethoven, "Christ on the Mount of Olives", and Mendelssohn, "Elijah".) After the first performance in a music hall in Dublin on April 13, 1742, just after Easter, it is said that a friend thanked Handel for ‘such a beautiful piece of entertainment’. The composer replied that ‘it was not written for entertainment, but for education’!
It is difficult to imagine anything more awe-inspiring than the design of "Messiah":
There is the gradual unfolding of the grand plan of redemption with many of the texts being drawn from Old Testament prophecies in the Psalms, Isaiah, Lamentations, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. These quotations become more and more substantial and definite as the Nativity is approached. This development is accompanied by the overwhelming expressiveness of the melodies, especially the so-called ‘Passion Music’ in the depiction of the sacrificial mission of the Messiah, for the salvation of mankind. The climax of the composition depicts the faith and hope of the redeemed, and the final triumph of the Messiah.
My earliest acquaintance with Handel's "Messiah" was as a Sunday school scholar at Rochdale, England, in the mid-1940s. Two young brethren, the late Ross Longley and Jack Taylor from Northwich, were invited by the ecclesia to come along and play their collection of vinyl records. It was a long session but there was excitement about the glorious words that Handel had set to music. I assumed that the whole work was put together by Handel; thought that he must have been very religious; and heard that he was reputed to read the Bible regularly. A few years later I went to a public performance that was complete with soloists, choir and symphony orchestra. Reading the program notes I learned that Handel had employed a librettist,1 Charles Jennens (1700-1773), who chose the words from the Holy Scriptures, and also selected the texts for Handel’s oratorios "Saul" and "Belshazzar". (The suggestion that the compilations were made by Jennen’s chaplain, Mr. Pooley, is now widely discredited.) Many years later I decided to find out more about Charles Jennens, and as with my previous supposition about Handel, I assumed that he must have been extremely pious.
Who was Charles Jennens? He was the country squire at Gopsall Hall in Leicestershire, England, descended from a family that made its ample fortunes at Birmingham, probably from jewelry, where they were equally famous for industry and generosity. Jennens was noted for the grandeur of his demeanor, his sometimes eccentric behavior, and his many servants. His neighbors called him ‘Suleiman the Magnificent’ after the great Ottoman ruler. He also owned a house in Great Ormond Street, London, and was driven from his house to his printers, a stone’s throw away, in a chariot drawn by four horses. However, he was said to be kindhearted and generous.
Evidently his efforts at Shakespearean literary criticism made him the laughingstock of his bookish contemporaries, who described him as ‘conceited’. This did not endear him to Handel’s admirers, but they failed to gather a shred of evidence to indicate that the great musician himself was not involved in the libretti.2 There is no reason to believe that anyone was responsible for the selection of these Holy Scriptures, other than Squire Jennens. However, he has long enjoyed the dubious distinction of being one of the few objectors to the way in which Handel set the words of "Messiah" to music. Even so, he continued to remain a sincere and valued supporter of Handel.
Handel is not regarded generally as a religious composer, for he was not a theologian or Bible scholar, but "Messiah" is seen as a supreme harmonious religious creation. This is because of its exciting Messianic theme, remarkable musical power, lyricism, and the eloquence of the orchestration. Beethoven is said to have remarked, "Handel is the greatest composer who ever lived", and spoke of the oratorio as having "sublimity of language". Over the past three centuries, many criticisms of the work; various editions, arrangements and misarrangements, and predigested editions such as "Young Messiah" (1979) have been published. However, Handel’s "Messiah" has exhibited an extraordinary resilience, and made a significant contribution as a unique testimony to the world of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Kenneth Camplin (Mittagong, Australia)
The "Messiah" Oratorio is a major composition about the life and purpose of Jesus in a magnificent symphonic and choral structure. The selections (pieces) in Parts I, II and III include arias (solo pieces), recitatives (narrative pieces) and choruses (sung by four voices). The three parts, using words (libretto) exclusively of verses from the Bible, include the account of Jesus in music. Included are:
In Part I there are a total of 21 pieces. Two are orchestral pieces. The opening overture (an introductory piece played by the orchestra) is followed by Old Testament prophecies that foretell the mission of Jesus, including "Every valley shall be exalted — But who may abide the day of His coming?" Bible passages used include Isaiah 40:1-5; Haggai 2:6,7; and Malachi 3:1-3.
Excitement builds in the next five pieces. Bible passages that speak about darkness covering the earth are contrasted with the hopefulness connected with the birth of a child. The section begins with the alto voice announcing, "Behold, a virgin shall conceive", followed by a lively choral number, "O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion." The deep bass voice is chosen to convey the dismal news, "For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth." Next is a bass solo, in which the darkness of the people is contrasted with the great light the people will see. The darkness statements are written in a minor (sad) key contrasted with the "great light" sections written in a major (happy) key. This section concludes with a well-known, joyful choral piece, "For unto us a child is born." Bible passages in this mini-section of Part I include Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23; Isaiah 40:9; Isaiah 60:2,3; and Isaiah 9:2, 6.
The Pastoral Symphony, the second of two orchestral piece in the Messiah, sets the scene for the section on the birth of Jesus. In the next five pieces, events surrounding the birth of Jesus are presented with Bible passages taken from Luke 2:8-11,13,14. The soprano voice begins with a narrative recitative, "There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night", sung to a simple accompaniment of solid, sustained chords. In the next recitative, "And lo! The angel of the Lord came upon them", the soprano solo voice is accompanied with an active accompaniment of arpeggiated chords.1 This mini-section in Part I concludes with the joyful chorus, "Glory to God".
The work of Jesus is then considered in four pieces. The first piece urges the need for a positive response of the people of Israel to the birth of Messiah. "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy king cometh unto thee. He is the righteous Savior, and he shall speak peace unto the heathen" (Zech 9:9,10). The second piece, an alto recitative, speaks of the healing aspect of Jesus’ work: "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 deaf shall sing" (Isa 35:5,6). The succeeding piece, an alto aria, outlines the mission of Jesus. It speaks about Jesus’ instruction and care of his sheep: "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; and shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young" (Isa 40:11; Matt 11:28,29).
Part I concludes with a chorus reminding the listener that "His yoke is easy and his burthen (an old English word for burden) is light" (Matt 11:30).
In Part II (the longest section in the Messiah, with 23 pieces), the scene changes from one of jubilation over the birth and mission of Jesus to one of despair. It is interesting that there are only two pieces in Part II where higher register voices are used for solos — one alto and one soprano solo. It seems Handel has chosen tenor and bass voices as more fitting for the subject material in this section.
The first ten pieces consider Jesus as the Lamb of God, and this mini-section in Part II begins with a choral selection (the only one in this section with words taken from the New Testament), "Behold the Lamb of God" (John 1:29). To describe the despair of Jesus a remarkable Old Testament quotation is used from Lamentations 1:12:
"Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? Behold, and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath
afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger." Jeremiah felt great sorrow in his heart over the captivity of Judah. Some of his feelings are applied to the feelings of Jesus at the time of his death, sung appropriately by a tenor voice.
The next five pieces begin with a tenor solo, in a major key, joyously proclaiming, "But Thou didst not leave his soul in hell." This mini-section concludes with a bass solo, "Thou art gone up on high."
Of the concluding eight pieces in Part II, three speak about the Gospel being preached after Jesus’ ascension. There is a well-known soprano solo:
"How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things" (Rom 10:15).
The last four pieces of Part II set the world scene at the return of Jesus — nations raging and wishing to break their yokes, but God laughing and placing the nations in derision, and finally breaking them with a rod of iron and dashing them in pieces like a potter’s vessel (Psa 2:1-3,4,9). These are loud, dramatic musical portrayals of divine intervention and judgment.
Part II concludes with the most familiar chorus from the Messiah — the "Hallelujah Chorus". While this chorus is being sung audiences usually stand.
Consisting of nine pieces, Part III is the shortest section in the "Messiah". In live performances usually there is no break between Part II and Part III. All but the last piece present Scriptural thoughts and aspects of the resurrection, beginning with a soprano aria, "I know that my Redeemer liveth". The aria’s first part is two verses from Job’s often quoted declaration concerning his hope:
"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" (Job 19:25,26).
The last section of this aria is quoted from 1 Corinthians 15:20:
"For (but) now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that sleep (slept)."
When these quotations from the Old and New Testaments are combined, Job’s hope, expressed many years before Jesus’ birth, is now effectively linked by music to the resurrected savior.
In the succeeding pieces various components of resurrection are presented:
"Messiah" concludes with a majestic choral number, sung at a slow tempo: "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood." Immediately following this is a section with a quicker tempo that is appropriate for the words, "…to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing."
These contrasting sections are sung twice. Then the pace quickens slightly and the words, "Blessing and honor, glory and pow'r, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever" are sung to a lively accompaniment.
Next, an even quicker tempo is indicated for the single word, "Amen". To convey the beauty of this concluding section Handel has the four voices of the choir sing in what is called a contrapuntal style (with independent voice lines). This beautifully portrays in music the depth, grandeur and appreciation of God’s plan of redemption through the work of Jesus — the plan that began in Genesis and continues through to the end of the Revelation.
"Messiah" is a remarkable composition that honors the Son of God. May this music not only thrill our ears but also touch our minds and hearts to bring fuller appreciation to our Precious Savior.
Joan Curry (Toronto East, ON)
1. An "arpeggiated chord" is a chord whose pitches are sounded successively, usually fromlowest to highest, rather than simultaneously. Taken from The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, ed by D. Randel, The Belknap Pressof Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1986,p. 52.
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