Some thoughts on why Handel's Messiah at Christmas is so compelling
At Christmas, instead of a lot of pop Christmas songs, I have been listening to passages from Handel's Messiah" oratorio, including the powerfully beautiful Christmas-oriented "For unto us a child is born" based on the writings of the Prophet Isaiah, and the soaringly magnificent Hallelujah Chorus.
To hear these, compared to everything else makes me ask if this was the pinnacle of human musical achievement? Will there ever be anything greater?
An argument can be made for it at least this far.
This oratorio, after all, is touched by eternity. We listen to this joyful piece today, nearly 300 years after it was written, with its variations like angelic choirs, and that fierce lyric "the mighty God" turning the piece to conclusion and can only feel the same emotion that King George II must have felt in 1743 when it was first performed in London and the king unexpectedly stood up for it as if to honor it, to express his joy at its soaring sound. Yes, he may have been standing up in response to the verses themselves, taken from the Bible, as this writer argues, the lyrics of which speak of the king of kings, meaning, King George recognizes that he's just a little king at the service of the big one, so he needs to stand up same as peasants stand when a king enters the room. But I don't buy it entirely -- King George couldn't hear that oratorio performed in the rough conditions 18th century life, with no telephones, no tech, no flush toilets, no running water, and hear the sound of angels as we do? How could King George have not felt what we feel today when we hear this divine music? Someone could have read him a passage about 'the king of kings' and he would have just sat there, knowing that it was just reporting he was hearing. That he stood suggested he considered something happening, something 'in the moment' with something real and in front of him with that music, as if it were alive.
For me, it seems so fresh, so new, so alive because its words sing of praise with melodies of joy, breaking out of its seemingly stilted musical era and our world is so bereft of praise as well as joy at the moment. When was the last time we heard any leader speak in terms of praise? It's liberating to hear these words of praise. Think of today's dominant culture of victimhood and the insipid Christmas songs sung now, particularly the modern pop songs, and think how sharply it contrasts with the entire focus of the Messiah, which is to put self aside to praise God as a collective in a beautifully layered sound of a choir -- in a majestically beautiful composition, that in the end glorifies the humanity that God loves, who are glorifying God in their song.
It's beautiful. It's so beautiful it makes me wonder if God Himself could applaud this piece. I know that must seem impossible given that anything done by anyone on earth is "as dirty rags," to recall the Biblical passage, compared to what is in Heaven, but I wonder if God wrote it and gave Handel the means to put it down. The guidance of God seems to have been present somehow in this piece.
The sound is so heaven-reaching that it makes me feel there had to have been some divine spark inspiring it, some Godly hand that must have moved their creation.
Yes, I feel that only emotionally, but I don't think it should be entirely dismissed given that many art creations entirely baffle their artist creators as to how they came to them, sometimes, as art critic Jerry Saltz has noted on several occasions, beginning as utter rubbish, continuing as utter rubbish, and then coming together as art very suddenly.
We all feel this way, it's a universal appreciation, it extends across ages, and perhaps we can predict with confidence that this music will be appreciated as much in 300 years as it is today, and as it was in 1743.
Handel, many historians note, understood the power of showmanship, but he also understood the power of the content informing his majestic pieces. If he was going to write something great, he needed a great topic, the greatest topic. Note how many pieces he wrote that were derived from the sheer power of the Old Testament. He got some kind of artistic energy from that.
The praise that Handel garnered for this work, and his many magnificent pieces prompted Beethoven to call Handel the greatest composer of all time.
According to historian David Wyn Jones, who wrote a delightful piece about that here:
In the autumn of 1823, when Beethoven was worked hard on the composition of the Ninth Symphony, he was visited by an Englishman, Edward Schultz. The conversation turned to composers that Beethoven admired. Expecting Beethoven to give priority to composers from his immediate tradition, such as Haydn and Mozart, Schultz was both surprised and delighted with the unequivocal response: ‘Handel is the greatest, the ablest composer that ever lived’. When Schultz tried to bring Mozart’s name into the conversation Beethoven’s response was an impatient one: ‘In a monarchy we know who is the first’.
This is one of many complimentary remarks that Beethoven made about Handel, reflecting a view that he had held for much of his life. But it was not an unusual one in the Vienna of the time. Handel’s music enjoyed a presence in the musical life of the city that was equal to that of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, even though the composer had died half a century earlier and had never even visited the city.
Imagine that kind of praise ... which Handel didn't live long enough to hear ... from a utter giant like Beethoven.
It's beautiful, it should be sung more often, and more people should have the opportunity to sing it as it does something good for the soul to sing it and hear it.
It's amazing music at Christmas (and Easter) and may it continue forever.