Handel’s Messiah as (Lutheran) Apologetics

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.

via Handel’s Messiah: An Interview with Calvin Stappert – Justin Taylor.

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?

Buy the book here:  Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies)

Tolkien vs. the Beatles


Once upon a time, the Fab Four—having slain the pop charts—decided to set their sights on the Dark Lord Sauron by making a Lord of the Rings feature, starring themselves. One man dared stand in their way: J.R.R. Tolkien.

According to Peter Jackson, who knows a little something about making Lord of the Rings movies, John Lennon was the Beatle most keen on LOTR back in the ’60s—and he wanted to play Gollum, while Paul McCartney would play Frodo, Ringo Starr would take on Sam and George Harrison would beard it up for Gandalf. And he approached a pre-2001 Stanley Kubrick to direct.”It was something John was driving, and J.R.R. Tolkien still had the film rights at that stage, but he didn’t like the idea of the Beatles doing it. So he killed it,” Jackson said.

via Little-known sci-fi facts: Tolkien killed a Beatles LOTR movie | Blastr.

HT: Joe Carter

Luther’s bar tunes

Luther used bar tunes in his hymns, right?  So we too can use the pop music of the entertainment industry for our church songs, right?  Once again, as I have explained before, a “bar tune” in music history is NOT a song that was sung in our kind of “bars”!  Peter Berg explain:

Luther did not use bar songs but rather his own creations and the musical heritage of the church catholic. The term bar refers to the type of staff notation used in medieval musical composing.  . . .

The musical notation was simply a repeat sign, known in Luther’s day as a “bar”. Yes, believe it or not, some wacky American Lutherans saw Luther’s reference to “barred music” in German and changed the repeat sign into a pub!  Why did Luther write positively about “bar(red) music”?  Because it describes the musical form A A B.  He thought that the repetition of the music of the first phrase would help in learning, and then the B phrase would give the balance of variety.  Hence, many chorales are written in this way.  The reason “bars” were used for notating this form was  used to save ink & paper.  Today we simply call these “repeat signs”.  You see this even in 19th and early 20th-century hymnals: the music for the first line ends with a repeat sign, and then the second verse of the first stanza is written in.


First line of music (A)

Salvation unto us has come, by God’s free grace and favor (repeat sign)

Good works cannot avert our doom, they help and save us never.

SECOND line of music (B)

Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone, who did for all the world atone; He is our one Redeemer.

via Steadfast Lutherans » Did Luther Endorse “Bar” Music for the Church? by Phillip Magness.

Preachers and singers fighting for wireless mics

The Federal Communication Commission is planning to release more broadcast channels, but the prospect of improved cell phone reception and WiFi on steroids has provoked opposition from preachers, singers, and others dependent on wireless mics:

Two decades ago, the FCC released similar airwaves to the public, but no one thought doing so would have much impact for consumers. They were wrong: That band of short-range radio waves spawned baby monitors, garage-door openers and thousands of WiFi hot spots at Starbucks, New York’s Times Square and homes across the nation.

Now, the FCC is betting that another batch of unlicensed and better-quality airwaves will enable engineers to turn those frequencies into WiFi networks on steroids. The airwaves would connect longer distances and penetrate through concrete walls – allowing for stronger connections.

For a start, the regulatory move, generally supported by all five commissioners, could help alleviate pressure on overburdened mobile networks that have frustrated some smartphone users who deal with dropped calls and slow Web connections. . . .

Details of the proposed regulatory order haven’t been disclosed, and the move faces some opposition from broadcasters, Broadway performers and ministers. Those critics, who have filed suit against the FCC to prevent the release of white spaces, say users of that spectrum could interfere with television channels and would throw off wireless microphones that operate on those frequencies. . . .

Genachowski’s proposal would reserve two television channels in each local market for wireless microphones. News and sports broadcasters, church ministers and singer Dolly Parton have argued to the FCC that they need some spectrum reserved for their wireless microphones.

via FCC considers release of unused TV channels.

Is this referring to those Garth-Brooks flesh colored mics (pronounced “mikes”) that  hook around the ear and have that long bendable piece of plastic that sticks out in front of your mouth?  I hate those!  I’ve had to wear them when speaking, and I hate them!  And, for some reason, I don’t like  to see other people wearing them!  Or does this relate also to those battery-powered mics that you clip onto your tie or shirt, putting the main unit in your pocket with the antenna hanging out?  I don’t mind those so much.  But maybe squeezing out the bandwith of wireless microphones would be a boon to both church and culture.

Dolly, you know I’m a big fan, but you and your fellow singers do too much dancin’, putting on too big of a show.  Just stand in front of a microphone on a stand, preferably with a bulbous top, like Patsy Cline did and just sing.

Preachers, preach from the pulpit rather than roaming around.  The reason we have pulpits is that it’s easier for the congregation to see you.  It also provides a place for your manuscript or your notes.  Please use a manuscript or notes.  Those wireless mics make it possible for you to stalk around and even go into the congregation, which turns  your sermon into something your are rambling off the top of your head.  Please don’t go into the congregation.

I suppose the leaders of liturgical worship like wireless microphones with all of the turning and moving they have to do outside of the altar.  OK.  But can’t we rig mics at the altar and around the chancel?  What did ministers do before electronic speakers were invented?  I believe that was the original purpose of chanting, to enable the voice to carry farther.

At any rate, I think we should sacrifice wireless mics on the altar of better cell phone reception and wireless internet access.

A classical musician on heavy-metal singers

Claudia Friedlander is a classical musician and voice teacher.  She was asked her opinion of five different male heavy metal singers.  (The link also plays samples of the music that she was analyzing.)  Notice that classical aesthetics contains principles that apply to every kind of music, without necessarily demolishing the more popular genres:

On Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden:

I have nothing but admiration for this singer. Listen how he starts off with a soft growl, then moves seamlessly into a well-supported, sustained high full-voice sound that then evolves into an effortless long scream! His diction is easily intelligible, regardless of the range he’s singing in or the effect he’s going for. He achieves an intensely rhythmic delivery of the lyrics without losing legato and musical momentum, something a lot of classical singers struggle with, especially when interpreting the many staccato and accent markings that crowd scores by Bellini, Donizetti, etc.

On Ozzy Osbourne:

This is a singer with decent diction and good musical instincts but no command of vocal technique. He is massively over-adducting his vocal folds while driving enough air through them to get them to speak, but his throat is so tight that there is no flow or resonance. His rhythmic punctuation of the lyrics is very distracting, in contrast with Singer #1 [Dickinson] who delivered his text with rhythmic accents that served, rather than detracted from the flow of music and poetry. It hurt my throat so much to listen to him that I was tempted to ask Cosmo how long his career lasted before he either washed out or needed surgery. The entire range of his singing is contained within a single octave – with the exception of the moment when he yells “Oh Lord!” a little higher, in my opinion the only quasi-free vocal sound on the entire track.

HT:  Webmonk

The savior of country music?

As many of you know, I’m a fan of country music. I’ve even written a now out of print book about it. But lately, I’ve stopped listening to it. What’s on the radio is too painful for me to handle. Maybe I am missing some good songs and artists. If so, let me know, since, as I have said, I have basically stopped following the genre. I’m not alone in lamenting the state of country music. There is a website devoted to the subject entitled Saving Country Music.

But the guy running it, Kyle ‘The Triggerman’ Coroneos, has identified a new savior of country music. And it’s Ruby Jane, the classically-Christian-educated home schooled 15 year old who is one of my daughter’s prize on-line Latin student! (Remember? I blogged about her.) Here is part of the Triggerman’s review of one of her live performances, which he illustrates with videos (including one of her singing by herself):

I’m convinced. Ruby Jane was sent to earth by God to save country music.

All accolades I lapped on the 15-year-old fiddle-playing fenom when I said You Need Ruby Jane In Your Life were validated, if not proved to be too tempered after seeing her live at Dallas’s historic Kessler Theater on Friday.

Really, I don’t know what to say. There are no words to express Ruby Jane’s talent level, because it is nothing like I have ever seen before, in a musician of any age. And I’m not just talking about her fiddle playing, I’m talking about all of it: songwriting, showmanship, singing, even her guitar playing. And overriding all of this effusive talent is a passion for the music second to none.

Ruby Jane is filled with the Holy Ghost of country music my friends. Its the only explanation. This is evidenced by Ruby’s tendency to shout out wildly on stage. Her music mixes jazz elements with country, giving it a very Western Swing feel, and these shouts work similar to the sighs and such you hear on old Bob Wills recordings. I’d seen Ruby do this in videos, but watching her live, you catch on that these shouts are involuntary, not a stage bit to emphasize the music. Something bigger is at play in her when she plays, and her shouting is an ecstatic reflex to her euphoria for the vibrations that create sound to the human ear.

Ruby Jane makes hokey songs cool, like Willie Nelson’s “Valentine.” She makes heady songs accessible, like Django Reinhardt’s “Minor Swing.” Her music is transcendent. Put a 10-year-old girl, or an 80-year-old man, a pop country devotee or a gutter punk in a Ruby Jane show, and they will all be mesmerized.

Recently Ruby has added a new wrinkle to her show, which is just taking the acoustic guitar and singing alone. If her other attributes weren’t enough, she’s added a unique, beautiful, vintage, and heartbreakingly soulful singing style.

Ruby Jane is a fighter. When she slung her guitar behind her back and grabbed her fiddle to take a blazing solo, she looked like a warrior. She’s fearless. Anything she wants to do, she does. I’d hate to be in a position to have to say “no” to her about anything. She’s principled, and refreshingly straightforward and honest. She’s hardworking. What I’m saying is Ruby Jane has character, keeping watch over this ridiculous amount of talent.

I truly am speechless about this girl. I’m tongue tied and vacant for eloquent ways to explain how I feel about her music. But I will say this: And if you’re reading this with one eye or have the TV on in the background, stop whatever else your doing, I need you’re undivided attention.

Ruby Jane needs us, and we need Ruby Jane. I am not asking you, I am not pleading with you. I am ordering you to rise up in support of this young girl. We are the grass roots. The shattered pieces of the heart of country music are sheltered in each one of our souls, waiting for the day when the pieces can be united again as one. It is a long fall from the top of the high-rises on Music Row. But where the grass grows there’s a strong foundation, that weathers the fads of popular culture, and nurtures artists from the bottom up.

This is one of those instances when the situation transcends silly arguments about preference in music style, and it becomes about life, and about the principles we all hold dear. Ruby Jane is 15-years-old, with young fans. As adults, we look our children, our grandchildren, our nieces and nephews straight in the eyes and tell them that they can be whatever they want to be with talent and hard work, and that heartfelt genuineness is rewarded.

But in the music world, mediocrity is rewarded more often than not. Imagine a world where the worst scientists were rewarded just because they were the most physically attractive, or where a middle-of-the-road football team was given the Super Bowl trophy because they were the most popular. This is the world of music these days. But the tide is turning.

But we can’t let this happen to Ruby Jane, and all the other top talents that we are so blessed with. So tell a friend. And then tell another about Ruby Jane. They may have the radio and the record labels, but we have each other.

In the long term, I like our odds.

But really, watch and listen to this video, as well as the others posted at the link. What she is doing is fusing jazz and country music, to the benefit of both. Jazz can be abstract and cerebral; country music can bring it down to earth and keep it melodic. Country music can be simplistic and cornpone; jazz can make it complex and sophisticated. Bringing these two genres together is a strikingly good combination. At any rate, the girl can just play:

HT: Joanna Hensley