Background of the Messiah
After the English public grew tired of Italian operas, George Frideric Handel turned to composing religious oratorios. An oratorio is like an opera, but without the staging of sets, costumes, and acting by the soloists, and therefore much less expensive to produce. In 1741, Charles Jennens gave Handel the libretto for the Messiah. Jennens was a devout Anglican committed to the orthodoxy of the Church of England, particularly the divinity of Christ. Besides being very knowledgeable about the Bible, he had a keen interest in art, architecture, literature, the theater, and music, and frequently attended performances in London. The religious convictions of Handel are not well known, although he was baptized in the Lutheran church in Halle, Germany and received his first organ lessons there. Handel immigrated to England as a young man and spent the rest of his life there, becoming a naturalized Englishman. Jennens and Handel collaborated on two other biblical oratorios — Saul in 1739 and Belshazzar in 1745. The libretto for the Messiah contains no original words by Jennens, but instead consists of texts from the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible arranged as recitatives, arias, and choruses. No soloist plays the role of the protagonist. Instead, the soloists, along with the chorus, tell the story of the promised Messiah from the Old Testament and the coming of that Messiah in the New Testament. The work is divided into three parts, Part 1: Prophecy and Promise of the Redeeming Messiah, Part 2: The Suffering Lamb Who Redeems, and Part 3: Thanksgiving for the Defeat of Death.
Handel composed the Messiah in 24 days, from August 22 to September 14, 1741, working around the clock. Much has been made of this prodigious output. Given the length of the oratorio, it seems like a monumental task. However, Handel frequently produced major works in a short amount of time, as did other composers, like Mozart. Many anecdotes about Handel have been passed down through the years since his death. One such anecdote claims that one of his servants heard Handel say while composing the Messiah, “I did think I did see all heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” This is probably apocryphal.
The first performance of the Messiah was in Dublin on April 13, 1742 as a benefit concert to three charities — the Society for Relieving Prisoners, the Charitable Infirmary, and Mercer’s Hospital. The next year it was performed in London. Handel gave benefit performances of the Messiah for the Foundling Hospital in its chapel in London for many years. In the words of English music historian Charles Burney, the Messiah “fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and fostered the orphan.” Performances of the Messiah have continued on a regular basis, making it one of the most popular pieces in the classical repertoire. The theological inspiration for the Messiah is due to Charles Jennens. The musical inspiration is due to Handel. The Complete Messiah website contains a lot of interesting information about the oratorio. The 1942 film The Great Mr. Handel, directed by Norman Walker, celebrates the life of this great musician.
Lamb of God
John the Baptist fulfilled the prophecy in the book of Isaiah that a herald would arise, announcing the coming of the Messiah. “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isa. 40:1-2 KJV). This is the text for the Recitative for Tenor, Comfort Ye My People from Part 1 of the Messiah. Following this is the Aria for Tenor, Every Valley Shall Be Exalted, with the text, “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight, and the rough places plain” (Isa. 40:3 KJV). John stands at the transition point between the Old Testament and the New Testament. He made the prophetic statement about Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 KJV). John the Baptist was the first to use the epithet Lamb of God for Jesus, clearly identifying him with the sacrificial lamb of the Passover. The words of John the Baptist are sung in the Chorus, Behold the Lamb of God. This chorus is the first piece in Part 2: The Suffering Lamb Who Redeems. The choice by Jennens for the words of John the Baptist to be sung by the chorus rather than by a soloist as a recitative or aria makes a powerful introduction to Part 2 of the Messiah.
The book of Revelation is full of references to Jesus as the Lamb of God. These texts have inspired many musicians to create sacred music in honor and praise of the Lamb. The most famous are the words that Handel put to music in the Chorus, Worthy Is the Lamb in the Messiah: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing” (Rev. 5:12 KJV). This is the last piece of Part 3 of the Messiah and ends the oratorio on a glorious note.
Wrath of God
In his First Advent, Jesus came as the Suffering Servant (Lamb of God) who died for the sins of his people. In his Second Advent, Jesus will come as the judge of the world and will bring about justice. This judgment is described in graphic terms in the book of Revelation, and issues from “the wrath of the Lamb” (see Rev. 6:16-17). What an oxymoron — wrath and lamb! The prophet Malachi speaks of this Second Advent when he says, “But who may abide the day of His coming? And who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner’s fire” (Malachi 3:2 KJV). This is the text for the Bass Aria But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming in the Messiah. It appears in Part 1 shortly after the Tenor Recitative Comfort Ye My People and Aria Every Valley Shall Be Exalted. The contrast between the First and the Second Advent of the Messiah is powerfully demonstrated by the voice of the soloist, tenor or bass that sings the prophecy.
Son of God
The virgin birth of the Messiah is prophesied in the book of Isaiah, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14 KJV). This is the text of the Recitative Behold A Virgin Shall Conceive from the Messiah. A passage of Scripture that is frequently cited at Christmas time is from the ninth chapter of Isaiah. “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” (Isa. 9:6 KJV). This is the text to the Chorus For Unto Us A Child Is Born from the Messiah, a lively piece full of joy. This is God’s prophetic birth announcement of his Son. This is no ordinary child. This son is God himself in human form, God incarnate, the Son of God. The Messiah has many significant titles or epithets (Lamb of God, Suffering Servant, Lion of Judah, Branch, Root of Jesse, Son of David, Prince of Peace, King of Kings, Son of Man, the Word, Rock of Ages, the Cornerstone, the Bridegroom, Bright and Morning Star, Rose of Sharon, Lily of the Valley, the Great Physician, the Balm of Gilead, Alpha and Omega). However, Son of God is the messianic title most closely associated with Christ’s deity. The Son is the Mighty God and the Everlasting Father.
King of Kings
Psalm 24 contains a reference to the Messiah as the King of glory. Theses prophetic words are the text for the Chorus Lift Up Your Heads in the Messiah.
Lift up your heads, O ye gates; And be lift up, ye everlasting doors; And the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, The LORD mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O ye gates; Even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; And the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, He is the King of glory.
(Psalm 24:7-10 KJV)
Several interpretations of the fulfillment of this prophecy by the Messiah have been given by Bible commentators. It is interesting that Jennens placed this chorus in the scene of Christ’s resurrection and ascension. In the Commentary on the Whole Bible by Matthew Henry, one of the interpretations of this text is the ascension of Jesus through the gates and everlasting doors of heaven. Jennens may have had access to this commentary, which was first published in 1706. In his commentary on the Book of Psalms, The Treasury of David, Charles Spurgeon also attributed this prophecy to the ascension of Christ.
The ultimate statement of Jesus’ kingship is found in the book of Revelation. Jesus is the “King of kings and the Lord of lords.” (Rev. 19:16). These words are sung in the glorious Hallelujah Chorus. The story that King George II attended the first London performance of the Messiah, and upon hearing this chorus, rose to his feet, with the audience following the King’s example, is based on anecdotal evidence. Thirty-seven years after this performance James Beattie wrote a letter to the Reverend Dr Laing telling him this story about King George. Whether this is a true story or not, it is the custom for the audience to stand for the playing of the Hallelujah Chorus.
Jesus demonstrated that he was the Messiah, both by the miracles he performed and by what he taught about himself. Yet, he was rejected as the Messiah by most of the people in Israel (see John 1:11), but particularly by the Jewish leaders. Even this rejection of the Messiah was prophesied by Isaiah when he said, “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3 KJV). This is the text for part A of the Aria He Was Despised in the Messiah. This piece is in da capo (Italian for from the top) form, which is frequently used in opera. This form has part A, followed by part B, and a repeat of part A from the top with the soloist expected to improvise and embellish the reprise. Part B has the text, “I have my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting” (Isa. 50:6 KJV). The rejection of the Messiah is represented in a graphic way by the picture of a cornerstone. Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would be a cornerstone in Zion when he said, “Therefore thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation’” (Isa. 28:16). In the Psalms we are told that this stone is rejected. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:22-23).
Light of the World
Because the Israelites had received light of God’s revelation and his law, they were supposed to be light to the nations. However, the Israelites failed miserably in this charge to be light to the nations. Israel had very few good kings after David, and the people drifted into idolatry and other pagan practices. Their idolatry was the reason the Lord sent them into exile in Babylon for seventy years. It was in this darkness that Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would bring light. “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee (Isa. 60:1 KJV). This is the text from the Aria for Alto and Chorus, O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion from the Messiah. The Recitative for Bass For Behold, Darkness Shall Cover the Earth follows this selection with the text, “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the LORD shall arise upon thee and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising” (Isa. 60:2-3 KJV). This is followed by the Aria for Bass The People That Walked in Darkness with the text, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light, and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined” (Isa. 9:2 KJV).
Micah prophesied that the Messiah would be a shepherd, saying, “And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth” (Micah 5:4). Isaiah also prophesied that the Messiah would be a shepherd, saying, “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young” (Isa. 40:11 KJV). This is the text to the Aria He Shall Feed His Flock in the Messiah. Charles Jennens selected the passages of Scripture for Handel’s Messiah, and he paired this prophecy from Isaiah with a familiar text from Matthew’s Gospel. “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Matt. 11:29-30 KJV). Handel used the same melody for the texts from Isaiah and Matthew, but he orchestrated the text from Isaiah for the lower voice (mezzo-soprano) and the text from Matthew for the higher voice (soprano) to make a contrast between the Old Testament prophecy and the New Testament fulfillment. Also, Jennens changed the text from Matthew in the libretto from the first person to the third person for the soprano aria because the soloists in the Messiah oratorio do not play the role of biblical characters, but rather just narrate the story of the Messiah.
The prophecy about the Messiah’s death in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah is the text for the choruses Surely He Has Borne Our Griefs/And With His Stripes We Are Healed/All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray in the Messiah. “Surely He has borne our griefs, and carried out sorrows. He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him. And with His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:4-6 KJV).
In his suffering Job was able to testify to the resurrection of his Redeemer and of his own resurrection. “For I know that my redeemer liveth; and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:25-26 KJV). Charles Jennens paired this text from Job with a verse from Paul’s great text on the resurrection of Jesus, 1 Corinthians 15, in the Messiah. “For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep” (1 Cor. 15:20 KJV). Handel composed the soprano Aria I Know That My Redeemer Liveth using these texts. The words I know that my Redeemer liveth are inscribed on Handel’s monument in Westminster Abbey. What follows this aria is the Chorus Since By Man Came Death based on the text: “Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:21-22 KJV). Paul says “The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven” (1 Cor. 15:47). In order to make a dramatic contrast between the first man, Adam, and the second man, Jesus, Handel used two musical techniques — tempo and dynamics. He had the words “Since by man came death” sung slowly and pianissimo (very softly), and the words “By man came also the resurrection of the dead” sung rapidly and fortissimo (very loudly). He again had the words “For as in Adam all die” sung slowly and pianissimo and the words “Even so in Christ shall all be made alive” sung rapidly and fortissimo.
Paul describes our own resurrection as a mystery. “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality (1 Cor. 15:51-53 KJV). This is the text for the bass Recitative Behold, I Tell You A Mystery and Aria The Trumpet Shall Sound. This aria is the second one in da capo form. Part A is the text, “The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” Part B is the text, “For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.” Part A is then repeated from the top. The first da capo aria is He Was Despised.
The Messiah ends with the Amen Chorus, immediately following the Chorus, Worthy Is the Lamb. Handel finishes the oratorio with a fugue, showing us that he is a master of the contrapuntal form so typical of baroque music.
Here is a playlist of the pieces referenced in this blog.
For further reading about Jesus as the Messiah, see my book The Road to Emmaus: Christ in the Old Testament – Inspired by Handel’s Messiah.
The BYU documentary on Handel’s Messiah is located here.