The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s “Messiah,” the Chosen One.” The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the “Messiah”? Save yourself and us!” Luke 23:35-39 (New International Version)
Luke mentions “Messiah” two times and he writes that Jesus was recognized as a “King” and as the “Messiah” or “Anointed One.” George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” has inspired Christians and non-Christians for 278 years. Composed in 24 days and written in 1741, Handel’s “Messiah” is the most celebrated composition of his career. The librettist of the oratorio wrote this “Majora Canamus” at the beginning of the libretto:
“And without controversy, great is the mystery of Godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, justified by the spirit, seen of angels, preached among the gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory. In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
“Majora Canamus” literally means, “Let us sing of great things.” Although “Messiah” has had mind-blowing success as the prominent sacred artistic work of its kind, it had a humble start and was nearly forgotten before it rose into musical history.
By the time Handel wrote “Messiah,” he was 56 years old and had suffered a stroke and gone through his first bankruptcy. His popularity as a composer of opera was over, and Handel turned to the new style of music he was developing called “Oratorio.” An oratorio is an opera without sets, costumes, and scenes. The new style suited Handel and the great composer wrote 29 of them. “Messiah” is his hallmark composition, and it does sing of great things.
HE WAS DESPISED
An aria from the second part of the oratorio was written with text taken from the 53rd chapter of Isaiah. Handel wrote this aria for a singer who was also a well-known actress, Susannah Maria Cibber. She was universally admired for her ability to move her audiences emotionally as an actress and also as a vocalist. Possessed of a sweet, expressive, and agile singing voice with a wide vocal range, Miss Cibber was an immensely popular singer, even though at times her voice was criticized for a lack of polished technique. But even more critical was her scandalous personal life. At the time she sang this aria at the premiere performance of “Messiah,” Miss Cibber was involved in a tabloid divorce.
The premiere took place in Dublin at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and many felt it was very improper for a woman of the theatre to be singing sacred text in a place of high worship. That night, however, when Miss Cibber finished singing, “He was despised, rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…” the Dean of the Cathedral jumped to his feet and loudly proclaimed, “Woman, for this, be all thy sins forgiven thee!” The combination of the music, scripture and the simple but emotionally moving performance of the singer, brought praise from the skeptical Dean who had been critical of the appropriateness of the singer and venue of performance.
LIFT UP YOUR HEADS AND HALLELUJAH
Handel wrote 21 choruses in “Messiah”, but two of them dealt specifically with the imagery of Jesus as an earthly and heavenly King. The first chorus is taken from text written by a king who was also a musician, King David. Jesus was from the lineage of David and the imagery of the text and music creates a regal and joyful chorus that symbolizes a royal entrance of the King into Jerusalem.
This chorus is the only one where Handel divides the choir into two parts: The treble voices singing in three-part harmony, and the tenor and basses forming another choir. The setting for the chorus is when Jesus enters the heavenly gates after his crucifixion. The chorus aptly describes the triumphant procession of Jesus with all the angels. On composing “Messiah,” Handel is said to have remarked, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me and the great God Himself.”
What comes to your mind when you hear these words, ”King of Kings and Lords of Lords!”? There is a good chance you may think of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” This chorus has made many inroads into sacred performances, as well as art venues and even pop culture. The chorus is sung all over the world on Easter Sunday, although it also holds a lofty place in favorite Christmas music. When composing the chorus, Handel wrote: “Whether I was in my body or out of my body as I wrote it, I know not. God knows.” Upon hearing the “Hallelujah Chorus,” the German master composer, Franz Joseph Haydn is said to have “wept like a child” and exclaimed: “He is the master of us all.”
The warm reception accorded to “Messiah” in Dublin was not repeated in London when Handel introduced the work at the Covent Garden theatre on March 23, 1743. The first London performance was overshadowed by views expressed in the press that the work’s subject matter was too exalted to be performed in a theatre, particularly by secular singer-actresses such as Susannah Maria Cibber. Six performances which had been scheduled for 1743, were canceled by Handel; and “Messiah” was completely removed from the 1744 schedule. It wasn’t performed again in London until 1749.
In another reversal of fortunes, London’s “Foundling Hospital” held a fundraising concert where Handel performed a mix of new music as well as older pieces including the “Hallelujah” chorus. At the time, “Messiah” was still somewhat unknown to London audiences; but the concert was so well received that Handel was invited back the next year when he performed the entire “Messiah” oratorio. Performances of “Messiah” became an Eastertime tradition at the Foundling Hospital until the 1770s. Earnings from performances of the oratorio were used to help the poor, needy, orphaned, widowed, and sick.
Handel died in 1759, a decade after the oratorio started to become a long-standing London tradition at Christmas and Easter. After the 1749 performance, the size of the choir and orchestra crescendoed each year, and once there was a performance with a chorus of 1,000 singers. Shortly before his death, Handel (now blind) attended his last concert of “Messiah.” Afterward, the German master was praised by everyone for his celebrated grand opus. It has been said that when Handel was leaving the theater he was asked about the performance. Handel’s quiet response shows his intention and humble devotion to his art and music: “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wished to make them better.”
Fr. Rick Romero is priest in the Old Catholic Churches International. He is a friar in the Order of Saint Francis, Old Catholic. He is the founder of Universal Spirit Broadcasting Network and is a tireless advocate for social justice.