How Handel’s Messiah transcends the sacred and the secular
I hope [Handel] will lay out his whole genius and skill upon it, that the composition may excel all his former compositions, as the subject excels every other subject.Charles Jennens, librettist, Messiah
I vividly remember my mother waking me and tugging me up off the floor to stand with 5600 other people. It was well past my bedtime, but I shuffled to my feet. I was overwhelmed by the sound of the choir and the orchestra. “Hallelujah! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth!”
We had the cheapest seats in the Sydney Opera House, perched at the back of the stage high above the choir stalls. I found them the best seats because I could see the conductor. He was expressing the music through his arms and face and hair and coat tails. I felt in the middle of it all. In that moment I thought, I want to do that.
George Frideric Handel said of writing the “Hallelujah” chorus, “I did think I did see all heaven before me, and the great God himself.”1 The controversial and wealthy theologian Charles Jennens had commissioned the celebrated composer to set the story of Jesus in the new oratorio style.
Handel took Jennens’ libretto and in just 24 days in the summer of 1741 wrote 259 pages of music score, working day and night, barely touching the meals his servant brought him and not leaving his house. A friend who visited found him sobbing with the intensity of his task. Quoting the apostle Paul, he later remarked, “Whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote it I know not.”2
At the end of his manuscript, Handel wrote the initials “S.D.G.”. Handel’s Lutheran family had taught him the great Reformation tenets of sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, sola Christus and soli Deo gloria (hence the initials). As we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation on October 31, these truths still capture the essence of the everlasting gospel. Scripture alone. Faith alone. Grace alone. Christ alone. For the glory of God alone.
But many criticised Messiah from its first performance. The new oratorio form had descended from popular opera minus the colourful costumes and dramatic acting. Some found the new genre altogether too secular and frivolous for sacred truths.
Yet Handel and Jennens were careful to avoid the possible sacrilege of depicting Christ on stage and were especially respectful of the cross. Rather than having Jesus speak in scenes from the Gospels, they described His death using predictions from the Old Testament and John the Baptist. “Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). “All they that see Him laugh Him to scorn” (Psalm 22:7). “Thy rebuke hath broken His heart” (Psalm 69:20). “Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto His sorrow” (Lamentation 1:12). “For He was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of His people was He stricken” (Isaiah 53:8).
Handel performed Messiah in entertainment venues rather than in churches to reach a wider audience, but many were horrified the Holy Bible in the authorised version would be cheapened by performance in a common music hall or theatre with secular vocalists and instrumentalists.
London newspapers criticised Handel, as did many preachers including John Newton, composer of “Amazing Grace.” In no less than 50 sermons, Newton expressed the fear that Handel’s ornamental music would distract people from the sacred word, and that audiences came for only “fashionable amusement,”3 yet Newton took the opportunity to thoroughly explain all the texts used in Messiah.
Martin Luther would probably have understood Handel better than most, sensing popular music enhanced worship, even if its use required a certain fluidity in one’s understanding of sacred and secular. In Handel’s view, Messiah clearly transcended the sacred and the secular realms. After one attack from an archbishop, Handel replied, “I have read my Bible very well and will choose for myself.”4 He had clearly understood Luther on the authority of Scripture and the priesthood of all believers.
Messiah was first performed for charity. Handel’s father, a surgeon, told Handel to study law, fearing a career in music would not provide financial reliability. This seemed an accurate prediction, as Handel often teetered on the edge of bankruptcy early in life. After Messiah, however, Handel had great success. He donated the proceeds from the oratorio to hospitals and charities that freed people from debtors’ prisons, in which Handel had almost found himself.
What a practical depiction of the gospel. One biographer observed, “Messiah has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan . . . more than any other single musical production.”5
I warmly invite you to this performance of The People’s Messiah in the time-honoured Avondale tradition. If there are any tired children in our audience, I hope you are awake to enjoy the “Hallelujah” chorus as much as I did.
1. Christianity.com 2007, “Messiah and George Frideric Handel,” Christianity.com, viewed October 26, 2017, <http://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1701-1800/messiah-and-george-frideric-handel-11630237.html>
2. Brentnall, John M 2000, “John Newton on Handel’s Messiah,” Banner of Truth, viewed October 26, 2017, <https://banneroftruth.org/us/resources/articles/2000/john-newton-on-handels-messiah/>
4. Christianity.com 2007, loc. cit.