Beliefnet
Mark D. Roberts

Part 1 of series: Handel’s Messiah and Easter
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I ended my last post by promising to discuss one further piece of Easter music. Today I begin to keep my promise.

Recently the choir of my 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. For the choirs sang Handel’s Messiah in Lent, a couple of weeks before Good Friday and Easter.
Most of us associate the Messiah with 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 [.mov 284K]). Moreover, I make it a habit to listen to the entire Messiah during Advent to prepare myself for a deeper celebration of Christmas.
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 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, 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 is surely no accident. If Handel had envisioned the Messiah as a piece for Christmas, it would have been introduced in this season. (Picture to the right: George Frideric Handel [1685-1759])
Although you may be familiar with the Messiah, it offers many surprises if one carefully examines 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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