One of the Bible scholars in our church group recently gave a presentation on “Judaism: The Context for Jesus’s Mission.” We were swept up in the story, areas of Biblical history that most of us had not visited in a while. In establishing the Jewish context in which Jesus lived his human life on Earth, he used material from the books of the prophets showing how the concept of God was continuing to evolve among the Hebrews.
By coincidence I had been exploring the topic of Handel’s Messiah, the famous oratorio that premiered April 13, 1742, in London, England as a charitable benefit, raising 400 pounds and freeing 142 men from debtor’s prison.
The libretto, assembled by Charles Jennens, a member of the Church of England, was borrowed extensively from these same “Old Testament” books of the Hebrew Prophets that were part of our church presentation. As you are aware, Handel’s masterwork is a regular, and sometimes annoying, part of our holiday music experience. Many of us attend the sing-along Messiah performances staged around the world during the Christmas season. In light of how popular this profound piece of music is, and how many people are moved—even transformed—by it, let us delve into the mechanics of its composition a little further.
Messiah takes its text from the Psalms and the New Testament as well. But of the 73 Bible verses used to create the text of Handel’s masterwork, 43 come from the Old Testament. And 22 of those are from the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah 40:4-5 appears in the Overture of Messiah. “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
Perhaps the most famous of all, a passage that many audiences have stood and sung along with, comes from the Final Chorus of Part One. Its source is Isaiah 9:6.
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”
Second Isaiah steps forward to declare in verse 60:3, “And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.”
Theologians praise the writings of the second Isaiah. He brought the message of God’s forgiveness to his people who were then in exile, in despair, deprived of the comfort of their traditions:
“By the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down, and there we wept when we remembered Zion. For the wicked carried us away, captivity required from us a song. How can we sing a song of joy in a strange land?” (Rivers of Babylon by the Melodians)
This prophet said to his fearful people: ‘Arise and shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you,’” a passage also sung in one of the Airs of Part One of Messiah.
It was the second Isaiah who preached that God would deliver them out of Babylon. “And the ransomed of Yahweh shall return and come to Zion with singing … they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Isaiah 51:9-11)
The idea that there were two Isaiahs, put forward by modern scholars, is still controversial. Religious conservatives dismiss it as a “fashionable,” and “humanistic” interpretation. Some Christian thinkers hold to the idea that Isaiah Ben Amoz, son of Amoz, wrote the entire book. Christian Courier and Koinonia House have posted the evidence in favor of the one Isaiah on their web sites. To declare that there are two (or some say three) authors of this prophetic book calls a fundamental premise into question, the inerrancy of the Bible.
The librettist Charles Jennens created the text to challenge the Deists of his day. Deism was a popular intellectual movement that rejected the idea of divine intervention in human events. Famous Deists of the time were Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Ludwig Von Beethoven, and Voltaire.
Jennens’s mission in the Messiah was to defend the truth and significance of the incarnation of the Son of God on Earth. Of course, the descendants of Isaiah’s people reject Jennens’s Anglican premise also, while they await the coming of the Messiah.
Here are just a few of the Messiah performances coming up this month:
Sunday Dec 4, 2011, in San Francisco, 3:00 PM.
MUSICIANS: San Francisco City Chorus. Larry Marietta, Artistic Director.
MUSIC: Handel Messiah singalong.
VENUE: Lakeside Presbyterian Church, 201 Eucalyptus Drive at 19th Avenue, San Francisco.
Saturday Dec. 10, 2011, in Berkeley, 7:00 PM.
MUSICIANS: Philharmonia Baroque. Nicholas McGegan, conductor. Dominique Labelle, soprano; Daniel Taylor, countertenor; Thomas Cooley, tenor; Nathaniel Watson, baritone; Philharmonia Chorale, Bruce Lamott, director.
MUSIC: HANDEL: Messiah. (not billed for sing along)
VENUE: Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley.
TICKETS: $25 – $90.
INFORMATION: call: (415) 252-1288.
Thursday Dec. 15, San Francisco, 7:30 PM.
MUSICIANS: American Bach Soloists. Jeffrey Thomas, director. Mary Wilson soprano; Ian Howell countertenor; Charles Blandy tenor; Jesse Blumberg baritone; .
MUSIC: Handel – Messiah.
VENUE: Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.
INFORMATION: call: 415 621 7900.
Friday and Saturday Dec. 16-17, Sunday at 2 pm, San Francisco, 6:30 PM.
MUSICIANS: San Francisco Symphony. Ragnar Bohlin conductor Joélle Harvey soprano Kelley O’Connor mezzo-soprano Richard Croft tenor Michael Todd Simpson baritone San Francisco Symphony Chorus.
MUSIC: Handel – Messiah.
VENUE: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave, San Francisco .
TICKETS: $35 to $135.
INFORMATION: call: (415) 864-6000.
Saturday Dec. 17, San Francisco, 10:00 AM.
MUSICIANS: San Francisco Academy Orchestra. Alden Gilchrist, Clinician.
MUSIC: Messiah Workshop: Brush up on your singing skills with Maestro Gilchrist in preparation for the Sing-it-Yourself Messiah. .
VENUE: Calvary Presbyterian Church, 2515 Fillmore at Jackson, San Francisco.
INFORMATION: call: (415) 506-7139.
Sunday Dec. 18, Berkeley, 6:00 PM.
MUSICIANS: not listed
MUSIC: Sing-Along Messiah. Favorite choruses from Handel’s Messiah.
VENUE: Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, 1 Lawson Rd, Kensington.
TICKETS: $15/10 – score $10 deposit.
INFORMATION: call: (510) 552-8160.