People who know me well probably know where I’m going next. Handel’s Messiah is the most incredible choral piece for a lover of the Scriptures. I’m well aware that music lovers are going to name Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion as an even greater masterpiece, and certainly Messiah has suffered from some overexposure. But most people are only overexposed to a few parts of it, or maybe just one: the Hallelujah Chorus.
You need to listen to the whole thing, with the book in front of you. Notice how Handel and his librettist, Charles Jennens, weave together the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah. In fact the first strictly New Testament quote does not come until track 14. The work is structured into three parts: Part 1 is the prophecies, birth, and ministry of Christ, Part 2 is his death and resurrection and this age of preaching the gospel, and Part 3 is the resurrection of the dead and the end of the world. It is interesting that the Hallelujah Chorus is at the end of Part 2, not Part 3, and presumably commemorates Christ’s second coming. That’s okay, because in my opinion the chorus at the end of Part 3 (Worthy Is The Lamb) is even grander and more glorious than Hallelujah.
Which brings us to the musical highlights. How can you “highlight” a work that is uninterrupted genius from beginning to end? (Away with single-CD Messiah highlights editions.) But here are a few of my very favorite parts.
- The beginning “Comfort ye my people.” How merciful our God is to send a long-promised Savior to live among us and comfort us!
- The prophecy (from Isaiah), “For unto us a child is born.” When they sing WONDERFUL, COUNSELOR, THE MIGHTY GOD, THE PRINCE OF PEACE, it will send shivers up your back.
- The way the “Pastoral Symphony,” which is instrumental, leads into the peaceful “There were shepherds abiding in a field.” I can’t describe this. You have to hear it.
- “Lift up your heads, O ye gates,” an Old Testament passage, which Handel inserts into the triumpant Resurrection section.
- “Since by man came death,” where Handel alternates between quiet choruses representing Death, and loud shouts of triumph over death by the Man, the Last Adam, who killed Death once and for all. “EVEN SO IN CHRIST SHALL ALL BE MADE ALIVE!” Yeah!
- “The trumpet shall sound,” where, of course, a trumpet is used to great effect.
- And, of course, the chorus “Worthy is the Lamb,” which is from Revelation 5. If this track does not inspire you, then you are a block of wood.
Every word of Messiah is Scripture. That’s not to take away from excellent works like Bach’s Passions, which consist of many added words. But when you sing Messiah, you are singing Scripture. It’s very inspiring. Most of the scriptures that are used in Messiah are so familiar to me now, that I can hardly read them in the Bible without singing Handel’s music to myself.
This piece has been with me since college, but I’ve recently acquired one of the best CD versions, shown in the graphic. You need to get one!