Handel’s Messiah: A Bird’s-eye View

in Faith/Latest/Music

Making of a Cultural Classic

277 years ago, a prodigious German composer resident in England and writing in Dublin wrote a work in two weeks’ white heat of inspiration Dublin which has gained something approaching immortality in the pantheon of Western Music. 

The man was Georg Friedrich Händel, and the work was The Messiah. Year after year, countless performances take place across the globe, by amateurs and professionals, in grand concert halls and shopping centre flash-mobs.

Despite its explicitly Christian metanarrative, it has lodged itself into the fibre of society where it has remained despite the decidedly secular drift of the majority of the culture, and even doubt-filled agnostics and fiery atheists cheerfully fill the rows to listen to its 2.5 hours, year after year.

The Greatest Story Re-told

Why? First and foremost, because the story of Christ still resonates with unique power in humanity, from the ancient prophecies of Isaiah to the unexpected arrival of the God of Angel Armies in the human form of a helpless baby, a child of poor parents in a backwater town of an oppressed nation; from the well-attested historical event of his blood-drenched death in Jerusalem to the unprecedented and still unparalleled shock of the resurrection.

To use an oft-used summary of the Christian view of reality, it offers answers to where we come from, what is wrong with the world, how true change, transformation and redemption is to be achieved, and the end to which human history moves, answers which still speak to the depths of even our post-Enlightenment, empirically obsessed souls.

And all moves around the fulcrum of this Messiah, this promised King, described throughout the work as the Comforter, the Refining Fire, the Purifier of His people, a humble Saviour who speaks peace unto those who do not know Him, this Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace given unto us as a child upon whose shoulders an endless and just government will rest. In the current troubled times, our longing for such a figure who knows our weaknesses and looks upon us with compassion but stands above us in both wisdom and power, grows deep and keen.

But it is also an astonishing work of creative genius. Handel’s command of melody, counterpoint (the way that various musical parts interact), and what I shall call musical psychology—the use of alterations within the usual musical and harmonic pattern of a key to bring out the emotion and meaning of a word or phrase—is an evergreen, criss-crossing the whole spectrum of human feeling and experience from exultation to despair, poignant and lovely enough to move even the most hardened listener.

Singing with Understanding

As a classical soprano, I have sung the soprano solos in the Messiah many times, sharing the stage with those who place personal belief in this metanarrative, and those who enjoy and interpret it simply as a musical masterpiece from a treasured cultural tradition. I do believe from observation of both colleagues and audience reactions that personal belief makes a fundamental difference to both the artist’s interpretation and the audience’s response.

An audience member of my first of three Messiahs this season at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall on 2 December confirmed this in a tweet I shall treasure long:

“@SingforJoy3 Thank you for an amazing performance this afternoon,  April. A lifetime of ‘Messiah’ concerts, but never have I seen a soprano soloist so engaged with the music, or heard such passion along with the lovely voice.”

It helps to have played in the Merry Opera Company’s acclaimed staged version of The Messiah, where 12 strangers from wildly differing backgrounds meet in a church and each engages with the work’s narrative throughout according to his or her experience. But I also consider that part of my job as a performer is reflected in my face and being the import of what is being sung around me, to interpret its journey to those who are watching me when I sing and when I am silent. It is a powerful re-enactment of sacred truth, so each and every time I set out upon it, I seek to live what I profess as completely as possible, in both voice and soul.

Structure and Context

Four moments in particular have caught my attention this season, only one of them sung by me. But first, a bit of context. The Messiah is an oratorio, a dramatic work designed to be sung without staging for soloists, chorus and orchestra. It is divided into three parts: the first focuses on the prophecies relating to Jesus’ birth and the historical fulfilment of those prophecies in Bethlehem according to the accounts written by the gospel authors Matthew (writing to the Jews), Mark (writing to Gentiles, i.e. non-Jewish readers in Rome) and Luke (compiled, he informs us in his opening paragraph, to give an orderly historical account to those investigating the truth of the Christian faith). The second relates to the death and resurrection of Jesus, the third to the lived experience of those who embrace the Christian faith and to its hope of resurrection and eternal life with its God.


Handel’s texts are drawn exclusively from the words of the Bible, and he draws heavily upon texts from the writings of Old Testament prophet Isaiah from the 8thc. BC. The prophecies of Isaiah contain the widest vocabulary of any Old Testament and a cover dizzying range of history and occurrence, from his prediction of the exile to Babylon which would come to fulfilment within several generations of his words to the first coming of the promised Messiah, the precise circumstances of his death to his triumphant return and the eventual restoration of the fallen creation to union with its creator and redeemer.

Recitative is a speech-like section which sets the scene and mood for the aria which more fully explores the mood and emotion of a text. It’s important to remember that Handel was writing within a rhetorical tradition—that is, a tradition in which part of the function of music was to persuade the listener. Thus the same text is repeated multiple times, but each time, the music is altered as Handel seeks to draw out a different facet of the truth it presents.

Mercy in the Wilderness

The first is a recitative and aria sung by the tenor early on in Part I, ‘Comfort ye … every valley’. ‘Comfort ye, my people’ (Isaiah 40:1-2), sings the tenor in a long note like a caress, over a gently pulsing accompaniment. He repeats the promise, adding, ‘saith your God’, to underline the authority of the proclamation.

‘Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem,’ he continues, grounding it in time and geography, ‘and cry out to her that her warfare is accomplished, and her iniquity is pardoned’.

These promises were spoken to a nation who, despite having received the blessing and occasional supernatural aid of the God of Jacob and Isaac and of Moses, had been serially unfaithful in terms of religious devotion, consistently flirting with other regional gods and relying on dodgy political alliances to protect their interests. By the time of Jesus’ birth, they had spent 70 years in exile and over 400 years with utter silence from the God of Israel. So to a people who had reaped bitter rewards from their abandonment of the God they professed to worship, these words must have been almost unbelievable. Conflict, imposed by others or self-imposed, ended? All our wrongdoing pardoned by the author of justice? Now there is a promise.

The tenor shifts to a declamatory recitative, a royal crier:

‘A voice crying in the wilderness: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God’ (Is. 40:3).

The cultural reference is to the ancient epic preparations made for the arrival of a powerful king, and it is adopted 700 years later by the curious, evocative figure of John the Baptist, a self-proclaimed forerunner of the Messiah who came to prepare the hearts of his people. John appeared and spoke in the wilderness, the Old Testament scene of Israel’s greatest failure and subsequent wandering. I always find this a powerful truth: the truth of redemption, of God’s arrival in human form, is spoken first not to the centres of wealth and power but to our wilderness places, to our desert, to our places of failure and need.

The mood shifts to one of joy as the tenor sings,

‘Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain’ (Is 40:4).

The vocal line is full of leaps from high to low and back, of quick vocal sequences (called coloratura) and little ornaments like running jumps. The whole social and spiritual order as we know it is to be overturned, and this will be an occasion not for fear but for joy. Why? Because the architect of the change wills to forgive us, has just pronounced his blessing and favour. All the proud will be brought low, and all the humble lifted up. We are all of us full of crooked and rough places, and to be honest, most of us are fairly testy and defensive when they are brought to our attention, but here the aggrieved party promises to straighten us out, to sand off our sharp edges, to make us whole and fit for a purpose. The great subversion of grace has begun.

Light in the Darkness

The second moment which has struck me this season occurs 8 movements later, after we have been reminded that in order to dwell with a holy God, we must be purified (an increasingly foreign concept in our culture), that God Himself will accomplish that purification. Then the twist: it will come via a child, born to a virgin, and this is such great news that the messenger is ordered to ‘get thee up unto the high mountain’ to tell everyone possible, to grab the biggest megaphone and reach as many as he can.

Why is it good news? ‘Behold, darkness covers the earth, and gross darkness the people’ (Is. 60:2), the bass intones solemnly, deep and low in his range with leaps from high to low, landing on uncomfortable dissonances before a last-minute resolution as the strings make little flutters of quick semiquavers in groups of 2, a perfect picture of uneasiness and anxiety, that stomach-churning fear of the unknown.

This is a scene with which we are all well-familiar, and in the current climate, it feels more à propos than ever. Will our fragile alliances, our paper-thin truces built over the raw wounds of the past century’s bloodshed, hold under the increasing strain?

Then a turn: ‘but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee.’ The harmonies shift from major to minor, and the bass wends his way upward in a gentle sequence like the ‘lifter of our heads’ (in the lovely phrase of psalmist David) drawing us up from our knees to our feet. He continues: ‘And the Gentiles shall come to thy light’—that is, all those not ethnically Jewish, the rest of the world whom the Old Testament makes clear Yahweh always wished to reach through his initial choice of one historical people—‘and kings to the brightness of thy rising’. (Is 60:3).

Then an aria most curious and ingenious in its use of that most simple of musicals means, unison, to depict the text ‘The people who walked in great darkness’ (Is. 9:2). As though, despite an endless variety of types of darkness, there is a tiresome predictability to being indarkness: the same mistakes, the same objections, the same defence mechanisms and patterns lived over and over again, thought new to each person and generation but really a new occurrence of the same obscurity and shadow. The aria is among the most chromatic (that is with most alterations and ‘transgressions’ of the usual rules of a key’s rules and patterns) of any in the work. It meanders its way painfully, going nowhere in particular, then lurching down or up with sudden vehemence, all the voices: bass and orchestra, sliding along together in the same weary, directionless melody.

And then another turn in the second part of the verse: ‘have seen a great light’, when just as suddenly, we emerge into the major, and the orchestra branches out in an almost audible relief into harmony. For the first part of the next verse ‘and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death’, we return to our chromatic, tortured snaking, with the bass diving to sepulchral depths on his final ‘death’, and remaining there for quite some time until again we encounter the turn from bad to good, eucatastrophein J.R.R. Tolkien’s memorable term, ‘upon them hath the light shined’.

When we are in darkness, either spiritual darkness or the grip of severe mental illness such as depression or anxiety, those increasingly familiar companions in contemporary society, we are diminished, simplified, desiccated, and yet scattered into shards with no direction. It is only when the light shines on us that we are healed and made whole, given purpose and direction. It is mortifying for enlightened modern people to be told that they require an external light, let alone a Saviour, but Handel is unashamed in his evocation of both the need and the answer, in his case not ‘what’ but ‘who’.

Christ as Anti-Hero

Fast-forward to Part II. No exploration of the soft-focus Sunday-School Jesus or the cosy ‘Jesus as Teacher’ portraits we often slide towards in post-modern Europe. We begin with another twist: the Crucifixion, the great redemptive swap upon which the Christian faith hinges, when the ‘Lamb of God’ willingly gives himself for his resentful, rebellious people. Again Handel draws from the 700-year-old words of Isaiah, this time chapter 53, one of the so-called ‘Servant Songs’:

‘He was despised, rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief’.

It is easy to lose the shock of this. He is no triumphant world leader with convoys and parades and tailored branded suits and offices full of important-looking people catering to his every command and whim. Or rather, he is that same leader who chooses tobe despised and rejected. Who in his right mind would choose whatis, to many of us, the fulfilment of a worst nightmare?

Handel’s depiction of this text is nothing short of genius. Over and over again he makes use of the technique called ‘appoggiatura’ (literally ‘leaning’), where he places the melodic emphasis on the note above the eventual destination to create a tension, a dissonance which resolves to the expected harmony, giving the effect of a sigh. His phrases are short, as though he hasn’t strength or will for more, and the strings echo him with little trills like the fluttering eyelids of utter fatigue.

For this is a ‘man of sorrows, acquainted with grief’. There is a wonderful passage near the end of the first section where the vocal line loops round the same series of notes three times, each time leaning on a dissonance, the way the mind returns to a canker, a pet horror or failing, a centrifugal force of heaviness sapping joy and strength. This is an intimate knowledge of grief, dwelling in him the way that Paul later says that the ‘Word’ (both Jesus himself and the Bible as a whole) should ‘dwell in us richly’. He knows it inside and out. It is an incredible thought that God, when he chose when and how to live among humanity, chose an existence full of grief and sorrow so that he would understand all of what it was to be human.

In the second section the invective gains weight:

‘He gave his back to the smiters and his cheeks to those that plucked off the hair. He hid not his face from shame and spitting’ (Isaiah 53: 6).

The accompaniment switches to a jagged dotted rhythm, portraying the merciless crowd and intensifying the sense of his pain and humiliation. Handel lingers again and again on the word ‘shame’—how inconceivable that he would not only suffer such indignities but give himselfto them, all for the sake of those who literally spit in the face of his sacrifice. Handel then returns us to the A section’s land of grief, sorrow and sighs to complete the portrait, underlining that there is ‘no sorrow like unto his sorrow’, as another movement setting Psalm 22 tells, and therefore, no sorrow of our own which is beyond his earthly experience.

Heaven Help Us

The final movement I wish to consider is the penultimate movement of the work, the soprano aria ‘If God be for us’, setting Paul’s words from Romans 8:31-34:

‘If God be for us, who can be against us?’ (8:31). Who shall lay anything 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. (8:33-34).

It is often cut from performances, which I consider a great shame, and not merely because it is one of my solos. It is set between two choruses, ‘But thanks be to God’, reflecting on Jesus’ victory over death through his resurrection, and the monumental ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ and ‘Amen’, and it can be done with single instruments, just solo violin, continuo (cello and harpsichord, which makes up one musical unit) and bass. The result is a movement of great intimacy, highlighting the aspect of restored the personal relationship between God and man which lies at the heart of the Christian faith, and it is almost unbearably beautiful.

It is written in ¾ time, an elegant dance movement which I picture like a baroque minuet between the soul and God. It alternates between declamatory phrases for texts like ‘who can be against us’, its repeated declarations catching the feeling of a lawyer in a courtroom drama expertly engaging his audience, and gentler passages on ‘justifieth’ with long melismas (multiple notes on one syllable) and ornaments showing the lengths he goes to in order to intercede on our behalf.

In a short space, the aria eloquently explores what I consider some of the most astonishing series of truths within the faith: that God himself should step in on our behalf in the midst of our daily reality, rescue us from condemnation, should give us his own Spirit to dwell within us and weave circumstances in and around us and us to make us holy.

The Heart of it All

The more I think on it, the more it feels almost like the fulcrum of the whole work, along with the movements outlined above. We begin in exile, in our own wilderness, and he speaks comfort to us there, before we seek him. He speaks the truth about our darkness, about the futility of our own efforts for self-salvation but offers us his own light: his presence with us in Jesus, Immanuel, literally ‘God with us’, one of us, full of compassion and understanding. And this Messiah willingly allowed himself to be despised and rejected by those he came to save so that, paying our debts, for as another movement reminds us, ‘the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all’, and in another, ‘by his stripes we are healed’.

But as Handel reminds us later, ‘But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell; nor didst Thou suffer Thy Holy One to see corruption’. In supreme pleasure at Jesus’ self-sacrifice and affirmation of its sufficiency, God raised him from the dead, and in the lovely words of another movement, ‘Thou hast led captivity captive, and received gifts for men’. What gifts? Triumph over death. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control, and hope for the future, real and lasting hope. And having ‘justified’ us, made us right with God, he speaks on our behalf day by day. Indeed, what has he notwon for us?

The scale and eloquence of The Messiah is staggering. It is no wonder that it resonates yet with the power it does. It has been my joy and privilege to be part of the continuing tradition of presenting and interpreting it for new generations of ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’ alike. ‘Rejoice greatly’… I think I shall…

By April Fredrick, Soprano

Latest from Faith

Go to Top