Last week was my birthday. I don’t set great store by this anniversary, even less so in the last decade following my mother’s death. In my opinion a birthday is chiefly a matter between oneself and one’s mother, marking the unique flesh-wrenching ordeal we went through together. Compared to that, congratulations, presents and cards seem rather by the way.  Handel.png

But I do try to hear a favourite piece of music played live at around birthday time. Last year it was Schubert’s C Major Quintet at King’s Place, and this year something equally astounding, Handel’s Messiah in the resonant space of the Temple Church in London. It was a proper Handelian performance, on original instruments (including a magnificent theorbo that might have been ten foot high) and directed by Thomas Allery from the harpsichord, just as Handel himself would have done, alternating playing and beating time, when he was not doing both at the same time.

Messiah’s text was compiled by Handel’s frequent collaborator, the English aristocrat Charles Jennens (1700-73). First, it tells the heart-warming story of the birth of Jesus, attended in the stable by angels and shepherds (but without Wise Men, Herod, or the flight into Egypt). After a quick mention of the miraculous powers of Jesus (“Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing”) the second part jumps forward to describe how the Establishment put a stop to all the flashy miracle-working. Christ is now the Man of Sorrows, suffering humiliation and abjection at the hands of the Sanhedrin, and then the well-washed ones of Pilate. “He was despised”, goes the libretto, “despised and rejected”.

Passing quickly, and a bit oddly, over Christ's death and resurrection, this second section then shows “the gospel of peace” relentlessly spreading as preachers go “into all lands and their words unto the ends of the world”, the mighty power of the Lord easily breaking any resistance to the message with its “rod of iron”.  Christianity’s total conquest of the world — which would have been seen in Handel’s day as a virtually accomplished fact — is then celebrated in the great surge of the Hallellujah Chorus, in words taken by Jennens from the Book of Revelation (a.k.a. Apocalypse).

Handel must have known this music’s power and it is an interesting question why he didn’t end the piece right there. But if he had done so one matter would still be unresolved. God may have triumphed, but what of the individual believers? How shall they be saved? The final part of Messiah deals with this question, almost entirely in words taken from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, but rounding off with the most marvelous musical flourishes and the words of Revelation: “the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed for this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality”.

The oratorio ends with an emphatic proclamation of God’s blessing, whereby divine power is devolved to his earthly representatives, the stolid, dependably protestant Hanoverians — “honour, glory and power be unto him that sitteth upon the throne”, all of which is then affirmed by the long drawn out crescendo of “Amen”.

Messiah is possibly the greatest advert for middle-of-the-road Anglican Christianity ever devised. Like all effective promotions, it doesn’t waste time on profundities, theological or otherwise, but sticks to a few simple selling points: a heart-warming story, moments of heart-breaking cruelty, God’s triumph and the final cast-iron guarantee of satisfaction (or at least the hope of it) for all.

Its distinctive protestant flavour is evident in its emphasis on scripture, and in particular the book of Isaiah, rather than church teaching. If the last section comes mostly from St Paul, it’s because the biblical prophets were interested more in the authority of God, and Jesus was more concerned with how to live a good life, than either were with what happens after death. Handel's music, however, culminates in a great shout of joy at the future general resurrection of all humanity. There is no reference to hell or damnation: like all good salesmen, Handel and Jennens lean on the positives.

There’s a distinctly protestant note in particular to the handling of the passion of Christ. The stress is on his humiliation and beating at the hands of the Roman soldiers. He was, we are told, “bruised for our iniquities … and with his stripes we are healed". But the text notably fails to bring up any other of the passion events, not even Calvary and the cross, or the scenes in the garden of Gethsemane. Were these too much a feature of catholic church imagery - too picturesque even — for Protestant ears? 

I left the Temple church feeling uplifted, with Handel’s worm-tunes jostling for space in my inner ear. Even for one immersed as I once was in Catholicism, and now hardly a believer at all, it was testament to the power of music and beautiful words that rationality had been circumvented and I moved to tears, and surprised by a joy I would not, in my normal state, subscribe to.

Posted on December 20th, 2022


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