Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2481
MESSIAH

by Roger Kaza

Today, a Hallelujah for Handel. The University of Houston’s Music School presents this program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them. 

Selection from Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah.

Why, you ask, are we listening to Christmas music in April? Actually, Handel’s Messiah isn’t Christmas music at all; that’s a recent tradition. The composer conducted the first performance in Dublin during Holy Week, April of 1742. But it’s not exactly Easter music either. So what is it, this most famous of all oratorios?

You might be tempted to say it’s sacred music. Except that it follows no church-approved liturgy. Handel’s friend Charles Jennens compiled the text, mostly from the King James Bible. They called their work simply “Messiah” — from the Hebrew word Moshiach, or “anointed one.”

Handel Stamp photo

So is it a story telling the life of Jesus of Nazareth? In point of fact, Jesus’ ministry is barely mentioned. Of the 51 vocal numbers, the Gospel texts are used in only six, and four of these are Luke’s nativity account. There’s no Sermon on the Mount, no miracles, no parables, no empty tomb. Handel was an opera composer, and he dramatized his narrative of ultimate redemption using messianic themes scattered throughout the entire Bible. When an audience member at the London premiere tried to compliment him on what a “noble entertainment” it was, the composer corrected him: “I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wished to make them better.”

But that didn’t stop the grumbling. The holy word was being proclaimed not in church, but in a theater, by, as one naysayer put it, “the most lascivious and immoral of persons, theater folk.” Sound familiar? Plug in the latest Jesus movie or musical. When it comes to religion, theater folk are still upsetting us.

Nothing about Messiah is quite what it seems. Think of the tune “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.” It sounds just like the Christmas story. But the quote comes from the Tanakh, the Jewish Bible, book of Isaiah, which scholars date to around 700 BC. And that jaunty, upbeat Hallelujah Chorus? That text comes from the book we used to call the Apocalypse of John, now Revelation.

Messiah Manuscript

And why did the Prince of Wales stand when he first heard it? Explanations range from the sublime to the ridiculous. Some say he was acknowledging the lordship of his heavenly king. Others say he was stretching his legs. No matter — we’ve been standing with him ever since. But I suspect Handel couldn’t care if you are standing or sitting, or, for that matter, jogging or doing the laundry. Listening to Messiah can — and very likely will — make you better.

More of Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah.

I’m Roger Kaza, at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


History of Messiah from gfhandel.org .

Full text of Messiah.

Handel image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Musical Examples of Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah: Sir Neville Marriner conducts the Academy and Chorus of St. Martin in the Fields (Philips).



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2009 by John H. Lienhard.