More than Pretty Music

What is the one piece of classical music known by even the most musically illiterate among us? The piece played most often during the Christmas season? I’m referring to Handel’s Messiah, of course. Performances of this sacred oratorio fill concert halls even today, 250 years after it was composed. When Handel’s Messiah premiered in Dublin in 1742, the demand for tickets was so great that the newspapers made an unusual request. Editors asked that ladies who planned to attend refrain from wearing hoop skirts and that gentlemen leave their swords at home. This would free up more space and allow more people to be seated. Handel was inspired to write the Messiah by Charles Jennings, an aristocrat who wrote the words for many of his oratorios. Jennings gave Handel what he described as “a scripture collection,” whose subject “excels every other subject. That subject is ‘Messiah.’” Jennings’s lyrics, or libretto, as musicians call them, consist of 53 Scripture verses, most of them from the Old Testament. The passages tell the story of Christ: His birth, His life and passion, and His second coming. As British music scholar Nicholas Kenyon notes, Jennings’s libretto “sets out the central truths of Christian faith with a concision and balance never equaled before or since.” Of course, none of this would matter without Handel’s music. For 24 days Handel locked himself in his room, refusing food and company, feverishly working on the Messiah around the clock. The result was some of the greatest and most beloved music of all time. But the Messiah’s greatness lies not merely in the beauty of the music. Its greatness also lies in the way the music illuminates the text. An example is the tenor aria called “Every Valley.” If you have a copy of Handel’s Messiah, listen to the way Handel draws a musical picture of a verse from Isaiah. Notice the emphasis on the word exalted and the way crooked wanders, in contrast to the single note of plain. For another example, listen to the awe and dread in the alto’s voice as she sings Malachi’s question: But who shall abide the day of His coming? Chances are, there will be a performance of the Messiah in your own community this Christmastide. Why not invite an unsaved friend to take in a performance? The combination of words and music create a wonderful opening to share the Gospel with your friends. In modern-day America, as in Dublin 250 years ago, the performance of Handel’s Messiah is likely to be crowded—so please... leave your hoop skirts and swords at home.


Chuck Colson


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