Handel’s Messiah: An Unexpected Easter Masterpiece – Introduction

I ended my last post by promising to discuss one further piece of Easter music. Today, I begin to keep my promise.

Several years ago, the choir of Irvine Presbyterian Church, along with a couple of guest choirs, did something you might consider odd. They sang a wonderful, well-known piece of music. This isn’t odd, of course. But the strange part, at least in the perspective of some folks, was the timing of the concert. You see, the choirs sang Handel’s Messiah in Lent, a couple of weeks before Good Friday and Easter. For some people, this seemed about as sensible as singing “Jingle Bells” on the Fourth of July.

Most of us associate Handel’s Messiah with Christmas, or perhaps with Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas. In fact, a few of years ago, I was blessed to join my church choir as we sang a substantial proportion of the Messiah for our Christmas concert. (To hear a short clip of our choir singing the Hallelujah chorus, click here [Messiah-excerpt]. See, I didn’t mess it up too badly.) Moreover, I make it a habit to listen to the entire Messiah during Advent to prepare myself for a deeper celebration of Christmas.

Georg Friedrich Händel

But, in truth, Handel did not write the Messiah as a piece of Christmas music. We know this for a couple of reasons. First, if you pay close attention to the words of the Messiah in the libretto (the text of the music) written by Charles Jennens, you’ll discover that only the first part of the composition has to do with the birth of Jesus. The second and third parts focus on his death, resurrection, the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, and the final resurrection of all believers. Second, the first performance of the Messiah occurred, not during Advent or Christmas, but in Eastertide. Handel’s masterpiece was first performed in Dublin on April 13, 1742, 19 days after Easter. This was surely no accident. If Handel had envisioned the Messiah as a piece for Christmas, it would have been introduced in this season.

Although you may be familiar with the Messiah, it offers many surprises if you carefully examine the libretto. For one thing, the lyrics of this piece are entirely from the Bible (though in a few spots Jennens paraphrased the Authorized Version). For another, though the story of Jesus is a New Testament narrative, the majority of the words in the Messiah come from the Old Testament. Moreover, the key events – the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus – are not told with New Testament texts, but with prophetic passages from the Old Testament. For example, the Messiah doesn’t include the words, “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him swaddling clothes” (Luke 2:7). Instead, it celebrates, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,” quoting Isaiah 9:6.

For centuries, people have loved Handel’s Messiah, and for good reason. In fact, a reviewer of the first performance of this piece wrote, “The sublime, the grand, and the tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestic and moving words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished heart and ear.” Now that’s some review!

In my next post I will begin to inspect the libretto of the Messiah, looking especially at its presentation of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the composition’s Easter core, if you will.


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