I have no idea why, but I am in the midst of an acute attack of anxiety today, so unnerved–over God knows what–that my skin actually aches. Musical exploration, on days like this, is not an option; I’ve been known to dismiss what are probably perfectly good songs in these fits for sheer nervous caprice. Today I need something familiar–like MESSIAH.
Believe it or not, I actually sang MESSIAH before I heard anything more of it than the ubiquitous “Hallelujah Chorus”. At the junior college I first attended, some thirty years ago, we spent the the entire first quarter in the college chorale learning selections from MESSIAH to sing as our big Christmas concert.
MESSIAH has remained a favorite of mine ever since. So engrained in my musical memory has it become that I can still sing whole sections of it without the score in front of me. In the intervening years I’ve learned more about its composer, George Frideric Handel, and about the circumstances of its composition.
Handel (1685-1759) was a contemporary of another great German Baroque composer, Johann Sebastian Bach; the two never met and indeed seem not ever to have known of each other’s existence, let alone music–which seems odd to us, whose world is so much less circumscribed thanks to modern communications. One author has said that as organists, Bach and Handel were equals and had no other peers. Originally, after a youth spent as a musical prodigy, Kapellmeister (chapel music director) for the Elector Georg of Hanover, Handel took a wandering spell; he settled in England in 1712, remaining there the rest of his life. During that time, his employer Elector Georg inherited the throne of his cousin, British queen Anne; although Handel composed more music in honor of King George I, he worked for other employers as well.
Handel had been composing oratorios–a musical form similar to opera, but presented more in the manner of recitals than staged–since 1732. After some years spent composing one failed opera after another, he accepted a commission from the viceroy of Ireland to come to Dublin to present a charity concert. For this performance Handel brought along a new oratorio called MESSIAH, which he had composed in a great fit of inspiration in twenty-four days, between August 22 and September 14, 1741. It is reported, from the eyewitness account of one of his servants, that when he completed the “Hallelujah!” chorus, Handel broke down and cried, declaring, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.”
No wonder: from the opening overture, this is a truly majestic musical masterwork.
MESSIAH debuted in Dublin on April 13, 1742, and was an overwhelming success; not so in London the following year, although the new king, George II (Handel’s old boss having died in 1727) was so moved by “Hallelujah!” that he got to his feet while it was sung, followed by the whole audience–a custom still followed at live performances of MESSIAH to this day. Eventually it would come to be an annual event–someone on the globe is always performing MESSIAH at Christmas.
Kind of sad, for only its opening, from the brilliant overture up through the chorus “His yoke is easy and his burden is light” are related to the scriptures about prophecies of Christ’s coming and his birth. An equally extensive section is devoted to the passion and death of Christ, ending with “Hallelujah!” and followed by a shorter section on the resurrection.
For my own tastes, I prefer the choruses of the Passion section. One is “All we like sheep have gone astray” (based on Isaiah 53:6) and is distinguished by a dizzy major key merry-go-round that abruptly changes from F to an adagio in D minor, in which the soprano and bass follow the words “and the Lord hath laid on him (the iniquities of us all)” to a perfect four-octave D flat spread; the soprano note hangs like an icicle for a full six beats, while the bass continues for a full fourteen beats on that one note, a rumble of meditative pain.
The other choruses I favor are the G minor largo “Behold the Lamb of God,” based on John 1:29, and the F minor “Surely he hath borne our griefs,” based on Isaiah 53: 4-5.
Truly it is a shame that most people think of this masterful oratorio only as Christmas music; it’s brilliant, ravishing and inspiring any time of year.
And today, remarkably calming.