And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.
(Prologue to Handel’s ‘Messiah’, 1 Timothy 3:16, KJV)
I have heard Handel’s ‘Messiah’ on CD, in part and in full, a number of times, but this year marks the first time I have had the privilege of attending a live performance. I’ll move on to the history of ‘Messiah’ and the details of this particular performance presently, but first…
As someone who is deeply engaged with the religious tradition in which Handel’s masterpiece originates, I cannot overstate how deeply moving, on a spiritual level, I found the performance to be, in a way I simply hadn’t anticipated.
Handel composed the musical setting for ‘Messiah’, but he didn’t write the lyrics: those he drew almost entirely from the King James translation of the Christian Bible. I have read the Bible numerous times – right through each year for the better part of a decade – but the spiritual discipline of deep meditation on short passages of scripture is one which I have practised only sporadically. Modern culture lends itself to swift consumption, not deep contemplation, and even when I’ve listened to recordings of ‘Messiah’ it has always been as background music while I’ve been driving or doing housework. But this is not how Handel intended his work to be experienced, and to experience it as he intended – as part of an audience committed to doing nothing else for two and a half hours but listen – brought me to a place of single-minded focus that transformed it completely and, I hope, has left a lasting mark.
Although the entire work flows together seamlessly into a single iteration of the Gospel narrative, each brief passage of scripture is treated separately. Thus the passages appear like jewels on a string, and each is given due attention before the next is presented. Handel moves back and forth between light and shadow, pairing fear with hope and sorrow with joy just as they naturally flow in the human experience. But this is music from a time before the current easy assumption that humans were basically good and basically worthy, when the tension in the human spirit between good and evil, and the need for purification from sin in order to be fit for the glory of heaven, were accepted as natural and normal. In this light, the judgement and purification of the Lord, though fearful, is nonetheless presented as good and necessary –even beautiful – in order to transform fickle-hearted humans into citizens of heaven.
In other words, I can see why George Frideric Handel’s work has become possibly the most enduring smash hit in history. John Lennon may have been justified at the time when he claimed that the Beatles were ‘bigger than Jesus’, but not even the music of the Fab Four has had the enduring quality and staying power of a choral piece first performed in 1742. ‘Messiah’, which tells not only of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth (‘Christ’ being a Greek translation of the Hebrew ‘Messiah’, meaning ‘Anointed One’) but also his ministry, death, resurrection, ascension into heaven, second coming, judgement, and taking the souls of the faithful to dwell with him in glory, was not originally conceived as a Christmas piece but was performed as an Easter benefit which raised enough money to free 142 men from debtor’s prison. Many subsequent performances have also been conducted with similar charitable ends in mind, and the association with Christmas specifically has grown over time.
The performance I attended featured two community choirs and local musicians, augmented by a nationally-recognised string quartet and nationally and internationally-recognised soloists. Particular treats were the harpsichord (yes, really!) played by the musical director Roy Tankersley, and the performance of the award-winning soprano Barbara Graham, whose evident joy as she exhorted the audience to ‘Rejoice! Rejoice!’ enhanced the overall delight of the experience.
This was my first live experience of ‘Messiah’. It won’t be my last.
Full cast list for the 2015 Whanganui performance of Handel’s Messiah:
Roy Tankersley – Musical Director and harpsichord
Barbara Graham – Soprano
Linden Loader – Contralto
Matthew Wilson – Tenor
Roger Wilson – Base
Helen Gordon – Musical Director of the Arcadian Singers
Bruce Cash – Digital Organ
Elios String Quartet – Malaviya Gopal (violin), Martin Jaenecke (violin), Virginia Jaenecke (viola), Robert Ibell (cello)
Wanganui Schola Sacra Choir
The Schola Sacra Youth Chorus
The Arcadian Singers (Taihape)
The Community Orchestral Players