When you think of a work that has Jesus the Messiah as its sole subject, you would reasonably assume that the text is heavily dependent on the New Testament, and primarily the Gospels. But when you look through the text, roughly two-thirds of the passages used are Old Testament. That alone suggests its prophetic nature.
We [The Daily Declaration] present the first of a series on the prophetic voice inherent in Handel’s musical masterpiece, Messiah. This piece of sacred music presents God’s word to listeners, speaking of comfort, strength and ultimate victory for those engaging in spiritual battle.
A few months ago, Warwick Marsh asked me if I would write an article on Messiah, the Sacred Oratorio composed by George Frederick Handel (1685-1759), as we both felt that it was relevant to Daily Declaration readers, not merely as a celebration of one of the greatest musical masterworks in history, but primarily for the fact that we both felt it possesses a powerful prophetic anointing, which I’m not sure that the man who compiled the text entirely from Scripture, a rather vain and pompous aristocrat, Charles Jennens, was at all aware of.
But I realised very quickly that the subject simply couldn’t be covered in just one article, that the whole piece is so steeped in prophetic power. So, this will be the first in a series.
Reverberations Through the Ages
Before I get started, I want to appeal to those of you whose eyes just began glazing over when you saw this is about classical music, as though it’s just so stuffy and boring, especially when you compare it to the wonderful and inspiring contemporary worship music we’re blessed with today, or the secular music you may listen to. How can you possibly compare such out-of-date stuff to that?
The fact is that, without the music of Handel, and every great composer before and since, modern rock and other contemporary genres simply wouldn’t exist, and to listen to the masterworks of classical music with fresh ears will reveal why that is the case.
If any evidence were required, I can even go to the extreme of Heavy Metal, which my son loves in all its variants. He once loaned me a DVD series on its history, and the director of the documentary, who was also the “talking head”, first charted its origins to three particular classical composers: J. S. Bach (a direct contemporary of Handel — 1685-1750), Richard Wagner (1813-1883) and Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840), the first two being the inspiration for Hard Rock and Metal’s modal “Gothic” sound, and Paganini the violin virtuoso, whose showmanship is the model for every Rock guitarist, and whose style is a distinct influence for virtually every rock guitar solo.
So much for “stuffy and boring”!
So, if you listen to the music clips from Messiah in this series of articles in the same way as you do the latest worship songs you will find that music is music, that there are many similarities, but they’re using different instrumentation and vocal techniques. To draw an analogy with speech, it’s not a different language, like English and French, but merely a different accent, like Aussie and American.
That’s because great music, of whatever genre or time period, has a paradoxical effect: it is both anchored in its own time, and yet timeless, all at the same time (actually, the same thing can be said in relation to the Bible).
So, in one sense, it is identifiable as belonging to the time and place it was composed; yet it can still profoundly impact us today — and that in a powerful way, body, soul and spirit (actually, the same thing can be said in relation to the Bible).
That fact holds whether it’s the secular music of Beethoven, Mozart or Schubert (my favourites), or in my own era growing up: The Beatles, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Pink Floyd, Yes, Cat Stevens, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, The Moody Blues (also my favourites), or a hundred and one other great singer/songwriter/composers/bands of that time right up to the present.
The same holds for the sacred works of the past four centuries, the traditional hymns of Wesley and Watts and so many others, and those modern worship songs, some of which we’ve been singing for a few decades, and more that we’ll be singing for decades to come.
As Bill Muehlenberg noted in his recent article,
When it comes to things like the arts (painting, sculpture, music, poetry, literature, and so on), there can be ungodly and immoral art, and there can be godly and moral art. The answer to the dark side of culture and the arts is not to say no to all these things, but to create good and godly versions of these things…
We can glorify God just as much in enjoying one of His beautiful sunsets, or by being enraptured by Handel’s Messiah, as by sharing our faith with others or by singing worship songs in church.
In short, the same Holy Spirit who inspires our contemporary worship songs equally inspired the works of the past. This is all worship music! That’s why Handel, at the end of Messiah, wrote the letters “SDG” for the Latin phrase “Soli Deo Gloria”, which means, “To God Alone be the Glory”.
My plea, therefore, is that you will listen to be inspired in the same way as you do when you listen to hymns or contemporary worship songs.
So, now that I have your attention, a little background is required on Messiah as a whole.
Handel composed the music for Messiah in a feverish burst of inspiration in just 24 days in August and September 1741, after Jennens had compiled the text during July of that year.
When you realise that the whole work takes around two and a half hours to perform, and Handel was writing with a pen which had to be regularly dipped in ink, and that he had to compose separate music for vocal soloists, a four-part choir, five-part strings, trumpets, horns, oboes, bassoons, organ and harpsichord, you can understand how enormous a task this is.
As music commentator Miles Hoffman estimates, there are roughly a quarter of a million notes in Messiah. At a little more than three weeks of 10-hour days, Hoffman said that means Handel would have had to keep a continuous pace writing 15 notes a minute!