Isaiah in Messiah

George Frideric Handel’s Messiah was first performed in Dublin, Ireland in 1742 as a charitable fund-raising event and is a favorite among Christmas-season musical pieces. 

Although the piece was hailed as a great success after its first performance, subsequent years’ performances in London were less than popular.  It wasn’t until performances of Messiah in May 1750, as a fundraiser for a new chapel for the Foundling Hospital in London, that Messiah began its path to long-lived popularity.

The music of Handel’s exquisite oratorio certainly echoes in the ears of listeners far beyond hearing it at an event or in recordings; however, some say that the text of the piece is just as compelling.  The text of the oratorio are verses from the Bible arranged by Charles Jennens, the librettist.  Jennens was a Protestant Anglican from Leicestershire, England and a great admirer of Handel’s works and collaborated with him on a couple of other oratorios prior to Messiah.  Jennens was able to deftly arrange the selected Bible verses to provide a rewarding experience for listeners, as well as to convey his faith-founded beliefs in the Messiah in the midst of the doubters of the Enlightenment (Age of Reason).

Messiah is an oratorio, which in music refers to “a lengthy choral work usually of a religious nature consisting chiefly of recitatives, arias, and choruses without action or scenery” (Merriam-Webster.com). The Italian word oratorio has its roots in prayer meetings and spiritual exercises held by Saint Philip Neri, the founder of the Oratorians, a religious order, in 1551.

Messiah is comprised of three parts which align with the Liturgical Seasons of the church, as described by librettist Charles Jennens:

PartLiturgical Season(s) and EventsJennens’ Description
IAdvent, Christmas and the life of JesusThe prophecy and realization of God’s plan to redeem mankind by the coming of the Messiah.
IILent, Easter, Ascension, PentecostThe accomplishment of redemption by the sacrifice of Christ, mankind’s rejection of God’s offer, and mankind’s utter defeat when trying to oppose the power of the Almighty.
IIIEnd of Year – Feast of Christ the KingA Hymn of Thanksgiving for the final overthrow of Death.
Three Parts of Messiah

The oratorio contains 60 verses from 14 different books of the bible and relies heavily on the prophetic and poetic imagery of the Book of Isaiah.  The musical work contains 18 verses from Isaiah with most of them occurring Part I which speaks of the coming of the Messiah; but others in reference to Jesus’ suffering for mankind, in the Crucifixion narrative, are included in Part II.

Biblical Verses by Count and by Part

The joyful Advent and Christmas messages of Isaiah in Part I are shown below, along with references from the Book of Isaiah from the Libretto of a performance of Messiah by American Bach Soloists.

Part I Scene / PieceMessageBook of Isaiah References
2 – Comfort ye, comfort ye my People (Recitative / Tenor)

3 – Ev’ry valley shall be exalted (Aria / Tenor)
The words of Isaiah in Part I encourage persistence while preparing for a Messiah who will make all things right again. Be comforted as he is coming, and make straight His path!Is 40: 1, 3 – 1 Comfort ye, comfort ye my People / 3 The Voice of him that crieth in the Wilderness, prepare ye the Way of the Lord.

Is 40:4 – Every Valley shall be exalted.
4 – And the glory, the glory of the Lord (Chorus)

8 – Behold, a virgin shall conceive
(Recitative / Alto)
The magnificence of God will come surprisingly in the form of a Son, born of a virgin – in a manger outside of a small town (Bethlehem). He will be called Emmanuel, God with us!Is 40:5 – The Glory of the Lord shall be revealed.

Is 7:14 – Behold, a Virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call his Name Emmanuel.
11 – The people that walked in darkness (Accompanied / Bass)

12 – For Unto Us (Chorus)
Finally, the long-oppressed people who have waited in darkness will have the light of the Messiah shined upon them – and be rescued from the shadow of death. This Child born to us, is the Messiah and deserving of titles of glory and majesty.Is 9:2 – The People that walked in Darkness have seen a great Light; And they that dwell in the Land of the Shadow of Death, upon them hath the Light shined.

Is 9:6 – For unto us a Child is born / His Name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
19 – Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened (Recitative / Alto)

20 – He shall feed his flock (Duet / Alto and Soprano)
When on earth, He shall heal and perform miracles, the once thought impossible will be done in His name. To all, He will be a shepherd providing spiritual nourishment and guidance with the gentleness of caring for small lambs.Is 35: 5-6 – The Eyes of the Blind be open’d, and the Ears of the Deaf unstopped; then shall the lame Man leap as a Hart, and the Tongue of the Dumb shall sing.

Is 40:11 – He shall feed his Flock like a shepherd.
Isaiah Verses in Part I

In normal years, Messiah is performed in many communities by both amateur and professional choral groups and orchestras; by churches and school groups. The events range from large and extravagant such as those at Lincoln Center in New York City or Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, to smaller settings like those held at local churches like The Unitarian Universalist Church in Berkeley – or somewhere in-between like the performance of Messiah selections by the Capella Antiqua Choir and Baroque Orchestra at The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento. Every performance is a reinterpretation of the great Handle masterpiece, and every event a reperformance of the first performances in Dublin and London. Each year is another layer of humanity upon the traditional gathering.

This year, in spite of all the restrictions, try to experience Messiah on your favorite audio streaming service, via recordings on YouTube or on a pre-recorded CD or DVD.  Whatever the circumstances, this is the year to enjoy the messages of Isaiah, as compiled by Jennens accompanied by the music of Handel in a performance of Messiah!

References:

American Bach Soloists – https://americanbach.org/media/Libretto.html. Accessed on 12-9-2020.

Keates, Jonathan. Messiah, The Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2017.

Thomas, Jeffrey. Musical Notes from a performance of Messiah in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in December 2018. From https://americanbach.org/. Accessed on 12-9-2020.

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