Handel’s Messiah and God’s Story

Yesterday, my wife and I had the privilege of hearing George Frideric Handel’s Messiah performed by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO.) The performance was held at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. It was an incredible experience. The Cathedral was an excellent setting in which to take in the oratorio; the building was filled with reverent and beautiful art and architecture, and the large sanctuary and high ceilings made for good acoustics.

    Messiah is, musically, a spectacular work. Its beauty ranges from the pensive and even despairing to the sublime and majestic, grandiose and triumphant. A chorus and orchestra of about 60- the original number of musicians Handel wrote the piece for- joined with four soloists from the Florentine Opera Company under the direction of Christopher Seaman (who conducted from the harpsichord, like Handel) to present this glorious work.

    George Frideric Handel was born in 1685 in Halle, Germany. His father was a court “barber-surgeon” who urged his son to study law. After obeying his father in his studies, Handel began his musical career by taking a post as an organist. His career took him from Germany to Italy and England. His great love was for opera, a style he picked up in Italy, and he spent much effort attempting to revive opera in England after it had gone out of vogue. His attempts were largely unsuccessful. However, he was brought to the oratorio style by Charles Jennings. Oratorios differ from operas in that there is no dramatization or stage props or costumes- simply a musical piece. Commissioned by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Handel began work on the Messiah, using Scripture lists from Jennings (drawn from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.) Amazingly, he completed the work in three weeks.

Needless to say, when one today hear’s of Handel, Messiah is usually the first thing that comes to mind. This is certainly a masterpiece. His musical skill extended beyond this one piece, though, and earned him praise and respect from both Beethoven and Mozart.

    Messiah is the story of salvation history put to music. The text for the oratorio is Scripture drawn from the Old and New Testaments. These tell of man’s plight in sin, of the need and promise of a Redeemer, of the Messiah’s advent and suffering, and of His victory over death and the rebellious kingdoms of man. Messiah tells, essentially, the Gospel story in grand musical form. The three movements of the piece bring the audience through redemptive history: Part 1 tells of the promise and anticipation of the Messiah, Part 2 tells of his suffering and victory over the world, and Part 3 tells of his victory over death.

In the next few days, I will be moving through how each of these parts takes us through the Scriptures and unfolds the glorious story of redemption. In the meantime, listen to Messiah for yourself. You really oughta’ go hear it live. But if you can’t, well, listen whatever way you can.

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