Crossway editor Justin Taylor interviews Calvin Stappert on his new book about Handel’s Messiah. Did you know Handel was a Lutheran? Did you know he intended his oratorio to be a work of Christian apologetics?
Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of who George Handel was?
George Frideric Handel was born in 1685 in Halle, Germany. Like J. S. Bach, born the same year, Handel was born into a Lutheran family and his earliest musical training came from a Lutheran organist and church musician. But unlike Bach, his career went in the direction of opera.
From age 25 when he moved to London, his primary occupation was composing and conducting Italian operas. When the popularity of Italian operas in England waned in the early 1730s, he turned to English oratorio—or, more accurately, he “invented” English oratorio, a genre that grew up in Italy during the 17th century but did not yet exist in England. Though he was reluctant to give up opera, during the ’30s he gradually turned to oratorio. After composing Messiah (his sixth oratorio) in 1741, he left opera entirely and went on to compose about a dozen more, leaving an unmatched legacy in that genre.
You write that apologetics was one of the reasons that Handel wrote Messiah. Can you explain?
Deism was very strong at the time, a serious threat to orthodox Christian faith. Charles Jennens, a devout Anglican, compiled the collection of Scripture texts that make up Messiah in order to combat Deism.
Deism’s “natural theology” had room for a creator-god, but denied miracles and any divine intervention into human affairs. Therefore it denied the fundamental Christian beliefs in the Incarnation and the Resurrection. It also denied their necessity. Humans, they believed, had the resources to solve their own problems; there was no need for a Messiah.
Jennens’s choice of texts had both a polemical purpose—to persuade unbelievers—and a pastoral purpose—to nourish and strengthen the faith of believers. He enlisted Handel (whose music he loved and who undoubtedly shared his convictions) to convey his message through the rhetorical and dramatic power of music.
How will reading your book enable people to understand the music and the theology of Messiah better?
I had two overarching purposes in writing the book.
The first, which doesn’t directly answer your question, was to show an example of how “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.” The Messiah, a work of art that has told the Gospel story to more hearers than any other, owes its existence to a remarkable series of historical twists and turns that finally led to its composition. To make a long story short—without connecting the dots between beginning and ending—Messiah, an oratorio (a genre that originated in a devotional movement in the 16th century in Counterreformation Italy) was composed by an 18th-century German Lutheran who was happily established in a career of writing Italian opera in England, a country in which oratorio did not exist until he “invented” it.
The second purpose, which does speak directly to your question, was to write a commentary on the whole oratorio.
So, in what senses can a work of art, such as this piece of Handel’s music, function as apologetics, that is, an argument for the truth of Christianity?