On a Friday night in December, thanks to the Benoliel Arts and Culture Fund, a few Templeton students saw Handel’s Messiah as performed by Vox Ama Deus and directed by Valentin Radu. We dressed up, and bundled up, and made our way to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill. The orchestra, playing with traditional Baroque period instruments, the four soloists, and the chorus came together in a magical performance of the 1749 Covent Garden version of Messiah. We sat in awe and wonder of the talented musicians and of the way their music reflected man’s response to God’s revelation.
Handel’s Messiah seems to have become a rite of the holiday season. Nothing gets you in the Christmas spirit quite like sitting close together with good friends in the wooden pews of an old church, facing the large stained glass windows and beautiful altar, anticipating the chants of “Hallelujah!” that will ring throughout the chapel.
Frideric Handel composed Messiah intending it to be an Easter offering; only later was it picked up as a Christmas classic. On April 13th, 1742, Messiah mesmerized its first audience at Musick Hall in Dublin. Messiah is unique to Handel’s oratorios that generally include soloists who dominate over the chorus. In Messiah, the chorus seems to carry the work forward to its end. This is just one of Messiah’s many unique aspects.
Messiah is a musical depiction of Christ’s birth, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension. It takes the listener throughout three parts, full of excitement and emotion. In Part I, the Old Testament prophets predict the coming of the Messiah through the Virgin Birth. In Part II, the chorus sings of Christ’s Passion, his death, Resurrection, and Ascension. In one of the most famous parts of the oratorio, Christ is recognized as God in the “Hallelujah” chorus. Part III opens with Christ’s promise to redeem the world, leads into the Day of Judgement, and concludes with Christ’s victory over sin and death.
In these three parts, the performance becomes something that you can feel lived out. I found this particularly true in Part II, when you can feel the audience aching as the tenor sings,
Thy rebuke hath broken His heart; He is full of heaviness; He looked for some to have pity on him, but there was no man, neither found he any to comfort him. Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow. He was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgressions of thy people was he stricken.
Thankfully, the performance does not end there, and neither does Christ’s story. In the last scene, the chorus rings out with good news,
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory and blessing, Blessing and honour, glory and pow’r be unto Him, that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever. Amen.
It was an emotional performance, representing both life and death, beauty and sorrow, hope and despair. Yet, in the end, we see that God’s promise remains and that our Messiah truly is alive, seated at the right hand of the Father, making intercession for us.