The Cosmic Drama
  • Thursday, November 10, 2011

Handel’s Messiah

Comfort for God’s People
By Calvin R. Stapert. Eerdmans.
Pp. 197. $15, paper. ISBN 978-0-8028-6587-8

Review by David Heetderks

Many listeners have likely heard Handel’s Messiah (1742) countless times and could sing many of its tunes from memory, but know comparatively less about Charles Jennens’s motivations for assembling its libretto, the conventions of the oratorio genre in which it was written, or Handel’s reasons for turning to the oratorio after several years of composing operas. Calvin Stapert’s book carefully synthesizes this information to make a compelling argument that Handel’s oratorio has a specific story to tell, both for entertainment and moral instruction.

“Like other oratorios, Messiah offers drama, but whereas other oratorios present action that is limited in time and space, Messiah tells a cosmic drama that transcends time and space,” Stapert writes. “It is the incredible drama of humankind’s deliverance from the tyranny of Satan, sin, and death” (pp. 37-38).

Jennens’s libretto relates this drama entirely through excerpted biblical texts, and Stapert provides evidence suggesting that Jennens believed his libretto had high stakes, as it aimed to persuade listeners of Jesus’ divinity during a time when Christian orthodoxy was under attack from the philosophy of Deism (pp. 75-78).

The heart of Stapert’s book is its third and final section, where he proceeds scene by scene through the entirety of Messiah and gives a detailed discussion of each musical number. Musicologist Nicholas Cook states that a test of music and text being wed convincingly is whether listeners understand the text differently because of the nuances provided by musical setting. Stapert’s insights suggest that listeners certainly do: Handel uses the full arsenal of operatic conventions and musical text-painting devices to give rhetorical emphasis to the libretto.

Consider, for example, Handel’s setting of the text that begins the work’s second part: “Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The rhythms allude to the French overture style, a sign of regality, while the minor key and slow tempo suggest weight and sorrow. In setting this line, Handel alludes to the mystery of the humble lamb who is also king, and who enters Jerusalem only to bear the weight of human sin (pp. 110-11).

Many readers will hear anew even the familiar “Hallelujah” chorus: Stapert points out that two of its phrases may quote Lutheran chorales by composer Philipp Nicolai, which Handel would have known from his youth. The chorale texts describe Christ as bridegroom and king and therefore allude to the broader context in the Revelation passage from which Handel drew the chorus (pp. 136-38).

Stapert occasionally draws parallels between themes within Messiah and extrapolates meaning, an interpretive practice that is more idiomatic to 19th-century music and may not convince some readers, but there are few pages that do not contain gems of insight. His discussion is accessible to both experts and amateurs: he defines all technical terms, and while the book includes examples in music notation, his observations can also be easily understood by reading his prose while listening to a recording.

The first section of Stapert’s book gives a useful, if occasionally meandering, history of the oratorio, which has its roots in the pietistic movement in Italy in the 16th century. Stapert quotes liberally from primary sources such as pamphlets, letters, and press reviews, and they vividly bring to life the world of the 18th-century theater. The debates about the uneasy relationship between religion and commercial entertainment engendered by Messiah and similar pieces retain a surprising present-day relevance. Stapert also takes care to address problematic issues in the libretto and its musical setting, most notably responding to criticisms that it does too little to underscore our personal responsibility in Christ’s death and tends to portray sinners as others with whom listeners do not easily identify.

Ultimately, Stapert’s book demonstrates that Messiah deserves its reputation as both an enduring classic of Western music and a treasure of the Christian community. His book will certainly inspire many readers to dust off their recording of Handel’s masterpiece, or attend a live performance, and listen with fresh ears.

Dr. David Heetderks is an assistant professor of music theory at the Oberlin College Conservatory and an active composer.

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