Meditations on Handel’s “Messiah”

It’s time for St. Peter’s annual Messiah sing-along, and I’m trying to find space in my head for this Advent tradition.

The sing-along is much beloved by our community – so much so that any casual discussion about occasionally replacing it by something like a concert of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio or Britten’s Ceremony of Carols is received as something like blasphemy. But the truth is, I’ve encountered Part One of the Messiah so many times in my life that I seem not to hear it any more.

So this Advent, I decided to really listen to it in the week before I encounter it in my find-orchestra-players/set-up-the-chairs/warm-up-the-choir/play-the-harpsichord chaotic mode. I share the result below just in case it speaks to anyone else who might appreciate a springboard to their own new appreciation of this relentlessly perennial phenomenon.

(Warning: This is neither a musicological treatise nor a theological essay. If you’re looking for serious content of either type, keep searching. There are plenty of those kinds of approaches to this piece on the internet, but this isn’t one of them!)

SINFONIA

This music feels like December, at least in our part of the world. Early winter in all of its gray, jagged, e-minor-ness, with days getting cruelly shorter in front of our eyes. Like the best art, the Sinfonia meets us where we are in order to take us on its journey.

COMFORT YE MY PEOPLE
(Disclosure: I’m not exactly unbiased here, as I am married to our tenor soloist:))

Minor gives way to major, and the gently pulsing chords in the string section become the aural equivalent of reassurance. Uncomplicated, peacefully insistent, and yes, comforting. The singer’s first few exhortations are out of time, free, informal, unstructured and somehow personal. Then he joins with the orchestra, and slowly, my pulse conforms with the tempo of the strings. It’s been less than five minutes, and I’m in a completely different place than I was.

EV’RY VALLEY SHALL BE EXALTED

Baroque music is full of word painting; we learned about it in music school, and it’s pretty easy to go on and on about how Handel takes a word and depicts its essence in sound. So I won’t belabor this. But if someone were to ask me to describe the word “exalted” to someone who doesn’t speak English, perhaps I would play this aria. Take every “valley” – all the thorny, intractable, defeating things in your life – and let them take flight with every one of these irrepressible melismas the tenor sings. Give them over and watch them fly.

AND THE GLORY OF THE LORD

I think that one of the reasons we love this part of the oratorio is Handel’s use of triple meter – choosing the rhythm of 1-2-3, 1-2-3 instead of setting his texts in 4/4 time or the equivalent. Musicologists call this “pastoral”, but what they really mean is that it’s informal. 18th-century music was full of elegant but rigid music, and it was designed to impress. Things that come in threes are far less formal. They feel less buttoned-up, somehow more personal. The fact that Handel chose to set these most astonishing and important words to music in 3/4 time is a somewhat surprising nod to the immanence of God.

THUS SAITH THE LORD

The declamatory bass voice gives us our first aural dose of authority. We’ve been pulled in, settled, reassured. Now it’s time for some of the tough stuff. The “shake” melismas are classic word painting and they don’t surprise. But it’s the long inexorable rising of the bass voice on “desire of all nations” that is somehow feels like the point of it all.

BUT WHO MAY ABIDE THE DAY OF HIS COMING?

Again, in 3/4 time… Just reading this text, who would imagine that the music accompanying it would be calm and accepting? The words pose the question, the music provides the nonverbal answer.

During the fast “refiner’s fire” portion of this aria, the adrenaline kicks in as the orchestra provides the quickest pulse we’ve felt yet. But for all the “fire and brimstone” imagery that this text might conjure, the music keeps us focused on the refiner. There’s a palpable sense of something being clarified, distilled, and polished; reminding us that when we come out the other side of every fire, we are better for it.

AND HE SHALL PURIFY

The musician in me knows that the majority of this chorus is in a forbidding minor key. But every time I encounter it, I feel minor giving way to hopeful major as I turn every corner. Perhaps it’s just the smooth, calming effect of the way we sing “the sons of Levi.” No matter why; it all comes together when all of the four parts of the chorus, who have gone their own various ways for the whole chorus, suddenly line up on the same message in the last four measures.

O THOU THAT TELLEST GOOD TIDINGS TO ZION

D Major has always been a warm, saturated, somewhat bright green to me. (Yes, keys have colors in my warped mind.) “O Thou That Tellest” aligns D Major, another triple meter, and a solo that sits unassumingly in the easy natural low octave of the female voice. Expressive without being virtuosic, this aria quietly convinces us that we have whatever it takes to do whatever needs to be done. “Lift up thy voice with strength: be not afraid.”

FOR BEHOLD, DARKNESS SHALL COVER THE EARTH

As I listen to the orchestra, I can literally feel the darkness rolling in. And just when it’s about to close in, there’s a pinpoint of light in measure 11, D Major returns, and the orchestra harkens back to the reassuring, pulsing chords of the very beginning of the oratorio.

THE PEOPLE THAT WALKED IN DARKNESS

What a challenge to sing, with its crazy angular intervals and long long phrases. With every new phrase, I hear what it’s like to stumble around, not being able to see what’s ahead. And every time the bass climbs to the top of those crazy eighth-note stairs and lands on the long note that is “light,” I exhale.

FOR UNTO US A CHILD IS BORN

An amazing 4-part recipe.

First: The pauses between the fragments of this chorus’s signature phrase are the bane of chorus masters everywhere. (How to get all of those singers to put the “s” of “us” at exactly the same place before the silence? What were you thinking, George Frideric?) But the chopped-up nature of the phrase is so perfect. The statement itself is declamatory and factual, and yet the music is halting, with breaks in the sentence that telegraph the astonishment of someone who is telling a wonderful story that they simply can’t believe is true.

Second: Over this simple tune with its silences, there is the astonishing 57-note(!) melisma on the word “born.”

Third: The dotted rhythms of “And the government shall be upon his shoulders” leave no doubt.  Solid, confident, almost defiant.

Last and best: All voices join forces in the strong, unfussy, jubilant “Wonderful Counsellor.” If you don’t know it’s coming, it can take your breath away.

PASTORAL SYMPHONY

Again with the triple meter, clearing my mind and slowing my respiration.

C Major: white but not blinding. Potentially bland, but here with hints of color.

A respite, as we wait with the shepherds.

GLORY TO GOD

We’ve left the Old Testament, and we’re thrust into Luke’s Christmas story. The soprano soloist leads us in with four very short, very different recitatives which seem to outline the jerky and surprising confusion in which the real message of Christmas can sometimes be revealed. The chorus delivery of “Glory to God” seems somehow inevitable, but the unison and octave un-fussiness of “And peace on earth” is a real departure from anything we’ve heard. And I must admit that I’ve always loved the way the unassuming postlude of this piece gets quieter and higher and just drifts away.

REJOICE GREATLY, O DAUGHTER OF ZION

Pure exuberance. Virtuosic in the best way.  Infection and inspirational. But don’t try this at home; it’s harder than it sounds :)

Favorite moment? The long note on “peace” in the middle section and the rather exotic harmonies underneath. A complicated environment befitting such an inconceivable idea.

HE SHALL FEED HIS FLOCK

A beautiful solo, but one that I wish we all could sing along with. It’s like a folk song, a lullaby that we could sing to our children. Or something we could sing to ourselves in the darkest night.

HIS YOKE IS EASY, AND HIS BURTHEN IS LIGHT

Not our choir’s favorite chorus, as its technical burden isn’t exactly light… But the rewards are great. The little dotted jerky rhythm in the middle of the “easy” melisma is jaunty. The short chopped-up “His burthen…. is light…” feels gossamer.  And again, when all voices line up in the last six bars, it sounds like the very definition of truth.

HALLELUJAH

One could go on and on about how this most famous chorus should returned to its rightful Easter season place. But in spite of the fact that its message is not strictly that of Christmas, its buoyant, expectant mood has landed it here. We paste it onto the end of our sing-along, careening out of Part One into this “Hallelujah Chorus” lifted from the end of Part Two. And even the family members, friends and neighbors who were dragged along to the church (and who were too bemused, cranky or intimidated to join in the singing of the other choruses), find themselves throwing in random “Hallelujahs” and “Forever and evers.”

EPILOGUE

And then it’s all over but the cookies and punch. Ours is a family and community event – a small church in a busy suburb of a too-self-important city, a volunteer choir, volunteer soloists from the choir, and an orchestra of seven or eight. It’s not exactly the sing-along at the Kennedy Center, nor would most of us want it to be.

Next year when it’s time to trod this well-worn path, I hope to come back to this page. To encourage my choir director husband not to despair all of the 16th-notes lying discarded on the ground during rehearsal, to summon up enthusiasm for the mechanics of putting this event together, and to remember that even familiar territory is never completely known.

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