Last night, I turned on the radio, and my favorite classical music station was playing Handel’s Messiah. For the next two hours, I sat, reading a little, but mostly listening to this masterpiece.
I have been a Messiah fan since childhood. I know the words to many of the pieces, and often sing along…in the privacy of my home, of course! My singing voice is abominable. I would never display it in public.
Those who know me might find this strange, that a confirmed nonbeliever would be completely captivated by a sacred work like Messiah, a work that lays out the Christian story of the birth, martyrdom, death and resurrection of Christ. I have even wondered myself, if there is some scintilla, some whiff of Christian belief buried in my subconscious. Why am I so drawn to this music?
I have given this some thought…tried to analyze my feelings on the subject, but self-analysis is not easy. Too many obstacles…ego, for one…get in the way of true objectivity. Nonetheless, I have reached some tentative conclusions…or at least a theory…to explain my love of Messiah. It’s necessary to go back to my childhood and young adulthood to explain this.
I was introduced to Handel’s masterpiece as a young boy when the local church choirs in my hometown performed excerpts during the Christmas season. My favorites were…and still are…For Unto Us a Child is Born and, of course, Hallelujah Chorus. Later, when I went to college, the music school often did Christmas-season performances of the complete work, and I always sought them out. Since then, I have bought recordings and attended many performances. Other music has come and gone in my life, but Messiah has remained…and will remain for as long as I live, I am sure.
I have also had a lifelong love of opera. The combination of music and drama has always fascinated me. Unlike most grand opera, Messiah is performed in oratorio form…that is, the singers do not “act out” their parts. In fact, they are not even characters in the story…merely storytellers. But the effect is the same. The listener’s imagination fills in the details. So…is it my love of musical drama that draws me to Messiah?
That’s part of the explanation, I think. But the plots in many operas, even the serious ones, are pretty trivial melodrama. Whatever else you think of the story of Christ’s life, it is a powerful story. The fact that it has captured the imagination…and faith…of millions of people for the past two thousand years proves that.
For me, though, it is Handel’s setting of the story that is so irresistible. The text and the music fit together so perfectly. The dramatic effect is simply overwhelming. When the tenor sings:
He looked for some
To have pity on him.
But there was no man
Neither found He any
To comfort Him
Even as a nonbeliever, it brings tears to my eyes. This is powerful, tragic drama!
My favorite, For Unto Us a Child is Born, is just such a rollicking, joyous piece! But it has some words that give me pause:
For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given,
And the government shall be upon His shoulder;
and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor,
The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace
The government shall be upon His shoulder? Sounds like a theocracy! No separation of church and state here. James Dobson and Pat Robertson must be smiling when they hear these words. The final phrase, “Prince of Peace,” is ironic since so much bloodshed has happened in the name of this religion, and others.
But this peaceful God does not trifle with insubordination! The bass sings:
Why do the nations so furiously rage together,
and why do the people imagine a vain thing?
The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together
against the Lord, and against His Anointed.
The tenor tells us what happens to such schemers:
He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn;
The Lord shall have them in derision
And then he tells their fate:
Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron.
Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.
This is a Prince of Peace I wouldn’t want to cross!
And then, the great Hallelujah Chorus:
Hallelujah: 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. Hallelujah!!
The Lord and his Prince of Peace plan to conquer and rule the world…peacefully, of course…but don’t forget that rod of iron!
Still, it is such glorious music that even I can sing those words with no misgivings. I have decided that, in the end, for me, it’s just art…a wonderful combination of music and literature…a dramatic, powerful story set to music by the consummate master of the genre, George Friderick Handel.