Comfort Ye My People

Glacier Peak, Washington
After an overture, this is how it begins.  Then comes "Every valley shall be exalted" and you know you are hearing something special.  The work, of course, is Handel's Messiah, a favorite work from a favorite composer.  Excerpts are now being heard on our classical radio station KING-FM, and for me, it is one more reason to look forward to this time of year.  Like cold weather and early sunsets, it is a sign that Christmas is coming.  It was also a favorite work of Beethoven who said of Handel, "he is the greatest composer that ever lived."  Musically, I seem to be in good company.

Georg Friedrich Händel (pronounce it HEN-del) was born in Halle, Germany in 1685.  He studied under Italian Baroque masters Arcangelo Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti.  His works follow the Italian style.  He became a naturalized citizen of Great Britain, changed his name to George Frideric Handel and became court musician to King George I.  He is thus described as a German who wrote Italian music for the English.  Handel is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Mount Rainier, Washington
Messiah is an English language oratorio.  It differs from an opera in that there is no scenery, costumes or performers moving around a stage.  The orchestra, choir and soloists all appear on the stage in concert style.  In contrast to a cantata, an oratorio is a larger work that tells a story, usually about a person or an event.

Please don't call it "The Messiah."  The correct title is Messiah with no "the."

It is quintessentially Baroque, and a pure example of the period's choral music.  It sounds like Christmas music should sound.  This apparent familiarity is due to the fact that many favorite carols come from this era.  Examples are "Joy to the World," "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "O Come All Ye Faithful."  Handel actually composed the music that would become "Joy to the World."  In Messiah, you will hear parts of it in "Comfort ye my people" and "Lift up your heads."

Mount Shuksan, Washington
It is also unique in some respects.  First, the title character never speaks.  Contrast this to Handel's Solomon, Joshua or Judas Maccabeus.  Next, this New Testament story is told primarily with Old Testament texts.  From the book of Isaiah we get, "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given..."  While the work is built on the standard cycles of recitative-aria-chorus, Handel adds another surprise.  In the middle of the first section, he pauses the vocalists and drops in a shepherd's bagpipe tune.  This introduces the shepherds to the story.  The shepherds' role was apparently important to Handel.  You will hear a version of this theme again in "He shall feed is flock."

The texts also reveal the beauty, cadence and poetry of the King James translation and how easily it is set to music.  It is the Elizabethan English of Shakespeare.  The words are as beautiful as the music.

Cascade Pass, Washington
A great recording is by the Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra.  I purchased the RCA vinyl in 1967.  This Grammy winner was the first recording to reproduce the 1752-53 version performed under Handel.  We know this because the complement of musicians and singers was detailed in a newspaper article at the time.  I was pleased to discover that the CD of this recording is still available and I promptly ordered it.  Another recommended recording is by Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony.  It is also from the 1960's, which seems to be the Golden Age for Messiah recordings.  Modern concert goers are often surprised to find that Messiah ensembles are much smaller than most other symphony performances.  This is in keeping with Baroque period concerts.  The music well played never suffers from a lack of numbers.

Generally, you can satisfy me by not playing the sections too slowly.  It is a mistake to assume that sacred music must be sanctimonious and somber.  "And he shall purify," "His yoke is easy," "All we like sheep" and "Let us break their bonds" are real foot-tappers.  Messiah is a work of joy, not melancholy.

So, you think this music is stuffy and old-fashioned?  What other classical work motivates sing-alongs where thousands gather in arenas to live this great work first hand?  Wouldn't Handel be pleased to know this?  In what other concert will the audience rise to their feet spontaneously for a certain anthem?

Now, watch what happens in a Philadelphia shopping center:

When Beethoven was on his deathbed, he is reputed to have said that if a physician could help him, "his name shall be called wonderful."  If true, even at his death, he was quoting from Messiah.  It is our human nature to be moved and inspired by beautiful things.  Every person should try to attend at least one live performance of Messiah in their lifetimes.  "Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstop-ped."  Wishing comfort and joy to everyone this season.

Photos:  Walter Siegmund, Cullen328, Siradia, Daniel Hershman

Adapted from an article I posted last year at Windows Live Spaces.