The majesty and grandeur of Handel's 'The Messiah'

The majesty and grandeur of Handel's 'The Messiah'

According to Max Spicker's "Introductory Note" in my copy of the vocal score -- voice lines and basic instrumentation, not the whole orchestra's worth -- " 'The Messiah' is Handel's most successful and best-known oratorio." (Spicker's introduction, like the score, is in the G. Schimer, Inc. edition, copyright 1912.)

Most successful, sure. Best-known, of course -- especially at this time of year and again in the spring, since most musical people refer to "The Christmas section" and "The Easter section" of the work.

But what stuns me about the history of Handel's work is that he wrote it in only 24 days of 1741.

If that doesn't seem impressive, consider that "The Messiah" consists of 53 separate pieces of music, from an overture which takes up four pages in my (simplified) score to the final chorus, "Worthy is the Lamb that was Slain," which takes up 16 pages (four vocal lines along with the two instrumental ones).

(Don't panic, fellow Handel lovers -- what is often referred to as "The Amen Chorus," the end of the whole work, is still there in my music, taking up a bit more than six of those last 16 pages.)

For each of the small recitative pieces, little explanations set to a few small lines of simple chords, there seem to be several very complex pieces. Twenty-four days to create it all, whether you think of it as one masterpiece or a set of them, boggles my mind.

Especially as Christmas approaches, I think of playing and singing Handel. (As a singer, I'm a fine cellist.)

But when I'm at church or reading my Bible at home, it's getting harder to hear what I think of as Handel's echoes.

For example, reading Isaiah 40 in the King James Version (the one Handel used) provides echoes throughout:

"1. Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.

2. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned."

But here's how Isaiah 40 starts in the New Revised Standard Version (1990):

"1.Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.

2. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her, that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins."

Good news, but there's no music to it.

As Rex Harrison said so beautifully in "My Fair Lady", "The majesty and grandeur of the English language is the greatest possession we have." I bring that up because it's a similar situation -- George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" was the literary basis for what became the musical and movie "My Fair Lady." So many people came to know "Pygmalion" after they found out about "My Fair Lady."

Could it be the same with the Biblical stories and Handel? The majesty and grandeur of Handel's music suit the King James Version's language so well.

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Filed under: Music and language

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  • Good job, Margaret. He was born in Halle? Which explains why he wrote the Hallelujah Chorus.

  • Sorry for the delay, but I've just stopped giggling. You have one more Christmas present coming, my friend -- the Pun of the Year Award. As our friend Sir Arthur would put it, I never observed the Halle/lujah connection before. Thanks!

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