Bible Quizzes for Smart People XXIX
Bill Long 1/14/07
Verses from Handel's Messiah
A "motto" I have adopted for life I (though I think in fact that I have about a dozen of them) is that you find your life when you are looking for something else. Well, I was searching verses in my mind to write about, and I couldn't get a few arias or recitatives from Messiah out of my mind. I decided to repair to that incomparable work of musical genius to comb through the text (I am listening to it as I write) and see which verses are those which we all should know. This and the next few essays are dedicated to tracking down some verses from that classic.
Let me say that one of the true pleasures of my life in KS from 1990-96 was participating in a college/community choir led by Prof. Diane Lewis to sing Messiah in Sterling for Christmas, either in 1992 or 1993. I had never sung in one previously; I think I probably did more damage than help to the bass section, but all graciously received me. I loved working through each piece with patience and learning Handel's marriage of verbal and musical phrasing.
Three Verses from Part I
Recall that Messiah, written in a whirlwind of creativity in 1741 (I think that Messiah may be one of the most significant acts of compressed--i.e., written in briefest time--genius in the Western tradition), consists of three parts. Part I "announces" the coming of the Messiah, Part II takes us from his life through his death (the Hallelujah Chorus closes Part II), and Part III takes us to final redemption with the incomparable "The Trumpet Shall Sound" and "I Know that My Redeemer Liveth" anchoring this section. Altogether there are probably 50-60 Scripture passages utilized by Handel in the arias, choruses, accompangnatos, etc., several of them build on one text (e.g., I Cor. 15 or Luke 2 or Is. 40). Here are a few from Part I, with context:
1. "Thus saith the Lord of Hosts/ Yet once, a little while,/ and I will shake the heav'ns and the earth,/ the sea, and the dry land;/ and I will shake all nations,/ and the desire of all nations shall come."
The biblical context in which these words appear is the prophetic statement about the second-temple-building by Zerubbabel. God will shake the nations, bring the desire of all nations to the land and "the glory of this latter house shall be greater than of the former." In the context of Messiah, this is a Bass Accompagnato sung very near the beginning. After the wonderfully-lilting Air "Every valley shall be exalted" (from Isaiah 40) and the Chorus "And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed," we are plunged into more obscure OT references for this bolded Accompagnato. Theologically the verse works as follows: we have announcement in general terms of the coming of Messiah by using the Isaiah texts and then we have Messiah's coming soon in this text. It will happen in a "little while." Where is this text? Would you use it in a similar way?
2. "But who may abide/ the day of His coming/ and who shall stand when He appeareth?/ For he is like a refiner's fire."
Now we are getting somewhere! These words are the precise words of a biblical text, with the final words of the verse dropped out ("and like fullers' soap"--I guess that Handel wanted to create the notion of a sizzling fire, and reference to soap would rather blunt the image, don't you think?). In any case, Handel makes the most out of fire of any musical composer I have heard. He exceeds the Doors when they sang "Come on baby, light my fire." He even exceeded Johnny Cash when I sang, "I fell into a burning ring of fire..." It is hard to trump both the Doors and Johnny Cash in the same Air, but GWF Handel did, I think. Agree? Here the notion of fiery judgment is in the air (pun intended). We are reminded of John the Baptist when he said that the coming one would baptize with a judgment of the "Holy Spirit and fire." His winnowing fork is in his hand, to separate the wheat from the chaff, and the chaff he will burn "with unquenchable fire." Well, that fire is presaged here. When he appears (meaning when Messiah will appear), he will, like a refiner's fire, purify all things. The next Chours tells about how he will purify the "sons of Levi." But here the emphasis is on the terror created by his appearance and judgment. Where do you find this verse in the Bible?
3. "O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion/ get thee up into the high mountain,/ O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem,/ lift up thy voice with strength,/ lift it up, be not afraid,. say unto the cities of Judah:/ Behold your God!/ O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion,/ arise, shine, for thy light is come,/ and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee." Then the chorus comes: "Oh, thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, arise, say unto the cities of Judah,/ Behold your God! Behold,/ the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee."
We continue in Part I with a Recitative announcing the virgin's conception of the child and then there is an Air and Chorus with these scintillatingly beautiful words. Though the Messiah will be like the refiner's fire which will purify the sons of Levi, he will also be the bearer of good tidings to Zion. The presence of the Messiah always cuts in two ways: it cuts against those who live in unrighteousness, and it comes to save those who are poor and aware of their own need. This musical selection is the longest of Part I, and so we can probably conclude that Handel wanted us to hear deeply the notion of good tidings that come to the people. Don't you just love the music? When going to the "high mountain" it is like the music is "climbing" the mountain. When the alto sings "lift it up," she sings the line several times, as if "lifting it up" higher each time. There really are two Scriptures here. Can you distentangle them and tell me where they originate?
We need more essays to understand this incomparable work.