On a brief stop in New Jersey on my way to Spain and Italy for the holidays, I recently attended a holiday performance of Handel’s “Messiah” at Princeton University. If you’ve never seen the spectacular masterpiece in person, do yourself a favor and find somewhere to do so.
A prayerful and meditative antidote to the consumerism and seemingly unceasing demands placed upon us between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, “Messiah” always serves to remind its audience of the glories of the Incarnation and the reason this season is recognized as the crowning of the year.
The arc of its narrative moves (in English!) from the prophecies of the long-awaited Savior, to Christ’s passion and death, and on to the glory of the Resurrection and its related hope for the Second Coming and culmination of all things in Christ. Though originally envisioned as an Eastertide event, “Messiah” has found a traditional home in the Advent season, when the church intentionally remembers its position as a community situated in media res, always simultaneously remembering the past and anticipating the future. After hearing it for the first time, Beethoven famously called its composer the finest who has ever lived.
The oratorio’s emphasis on the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah, like the spiny leaves and blood-red berries of holly, highlight the suffering that is foreshadowed in the celebration of Christ’s birth. For the same reason, some artwork even fashions the crib in the manger to look like a miniature sepulcher. And the Magi’s gift of myrrh, which was collected in a process much like modern maple syrup to be used in burials, is a clear allusion to the eventual sword that will pierce the Madonna’s and disciples’ hearts, when they bring the resin to prepare Jesus’s body after the crucifixion.
Thus, Handel’s selection of texts ties the birth of the Savior to his salvific mission and the sacrificial nature of his public life and eventual execution. One of the most famous episodes of the 1742 premiere is often recounted, when a local Dublin doctor in the audience was so moved that he interrupted the alto soloist’s emotive performance of “He was despised” to exclaim aloud: “Woman, for this, be all your sins forgiven!”
The most familiar part of Messiah is the Hallelujah chorus, marking the finale of Part II and the transition from Christ’s death to new life, when the audience traditionally rises from their feet to stand in awed silence.
Winton Dean has summarized the experience well: “The greatness of ‘Messiah’ … derives on one level from its unique fusion of the traditions of Italian opera, English anthem, and German passion, and on another from the coincidence of Handel’s personal faith and creative genius to express, more fully than in any other work of art, the deepest aspirations of the Anglican religious spirit.”
The fact that Handel accomplished this monumental feat by bringing this masterpiece to life in just over three weeks’ time boggles the mind and attests to his singular prodigy and the heights to which the inspired human soul can be transported.
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D. teaches at Loyola University. Chicago.