‘Messiah’ has come (again)

by Clive Marsh.

I was about ten when I first witnessed it. My family dragged me along to a performance at the local Methodist Church – well-known choir, bought-in soloists. I can’t honestly remember how willingly or unwillingly I went, but it was a ‘family night out’ near Christmas, so was presumably a bit of a thrill at the time. Some of it was boring, but I do remember being impressed (moved, even?) by some of it. Years later, I recall thinking that if it had kept a ten-year old interested enough to keep listening, then it must be pretty good. Either side of Christmas, Handel’s Messiah will be performed across the world in many different settings by choirs and soloists amateur and professional. There will be ‘sing-along’ Messiahs, performances sung for applause, other performances without applause, extracts used in worship. The Hallelujah chorus will be over-used, and yet still somehow manage to send shivers down spines everywhere.

What is to be made of this? An example of classical Western music, of a particular genre (an oratorio), written simultaneously to entertain, inform and spiritually affect whoever heard it, and which has been performed somewhere in the world every single year since its first performance in 1742, raises simple but searching questions about both how God speaks, and how art works. Let’s be clear: Handel’s Messiah won’t work for everyone. Even if it has gained ‘popular classic’ status so that those who usually say they don’t like classical music will give it a listen, its musical style won’t connect with all listeners. All music comes from and speaks to particular contexts even though it always has the potential to speak beyond the context from which it comes. It is no surprise that the word ‘transcendent’ gets used about music of all genres when pieces seem to rise above their contexts and tap into something universal. The only real difficulty is when lots of different people, from different backgrounds, contexts, belief-systems and worldviews then claim to be able to define quite precisely what the meaning is of the transcendence which is tapped into. God can still look different from different perspectives.

Music, though, functions more than as mere illustration of what theology is wrestling with all the time: saying particular things, out of particular contexts, in a particular tradition, whilst at the same time believing it possible to be making universal claims. Music’s particular ways of working (be it as rap, folk, jazz, pop, rock, classical) may not always be intended to evoke transcendent moments. They clearly often aren’t. It is no more possible to generalize about music than it is about newspapers, books, visual art, films or TV. Different examples all have different purposes. But within the mix of the multiple purposes music can move. It can, at times, put our daily chores to one side and open up a moment of indescribable depth, of untold exhilaration, or shimmering emotion. We can’t then easily put our finger on exactly what is happening. But the space created invites us to do something with it, even if it is only to ask: what happened there? And at that point we need broader resources, including the traditions of religion, myth, folklore, philosophy, family and community stories, to try and make sense of things.

In the case of Messiah, Charles Jennens – who wrote the words, and Handel – who wrote the music, have together produced a work that creates musical moments and an affective experience which provides its own commentary. A listener is taken on an emotional journey by the music but also given an explanation of what is intended by the music. It could, of course, be claimed that because Handel set Jennens’ (biblical) words to music, things should be viewed the other way round: it is the words that really matter. But I’m not so sure. It could still be true that ‘Messiah… is sufficiently rich and complex to speak to a range of human needs and emotions, irrespective of its immediate Judaeo-Christian framework.[1] Perhaps this is true precisely because of the way music works. Words and music belong together. It could, then, so easily be that a great many pieces and types of music leave the listener moved, and asking ‘what happened there?’ The words which then follow are crucial, admittedly. Not only Christian words will be offered as ways of understanding what music does, and what is being indicated about human experience. This is, though, exactly the task also of Christian theology in a missiological key: noting what is happening in the world, asking what God is up to and wanting to do, working out how to articulate all of this, and energising people to become involved. Messiah and lots of other music can contribute to the theological task when understood in this way.

[1] Donald Burrows, Handel: Messiah (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991), viii.

7 thoughts on “‘Messiah’ has come (again)”

  1. It’s the ‘Amen’ chorus that does it for me………

    ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ (Elgar) and ‘Hymn of Jesus’ (Holst) have this effect too – the spine-tingling thing – ever since I sang in the chorus of one of the great Northern choral societies in my youth.

    And Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man’. Can anyone hear ‘Benedictus’ without being enriched?

    Or ‘Captain of Israel’s Host’ at Methodist Conference?


  2. Some may like to spare a thought for those who can no longer enjoy spine tingling music of any kind because it has a literal impact on the spine, causing physical symptoms and/or impacting on the functionality of the brain. For some who have autism, this is from birth, for others, it comes suddenly following an accident or stroke.
    How might this meeting with God through music be made possible again, or what could, if not take its place, cater in similar ways? I’d love to hear some wise suggestions (but not glib ones).
    My own relationship with music has become much more complex post-injury. It’s manageable when I’m in control, but when listening or paying attention, I can have no control over my response which may be disproportionately emotional and filled with a sense of loss and longing and confusion when the sound level is manageable, or physical, mental and emotional agony very much as if under fire in a war zone (ridiculous as that sounds) when the sound is problematic – in which case I literally have to run away and hide behind a wall or solid object from the soundwaves, and can be in danger of screaming loudly as well as sobbing my heart out and shaking uncontrollably – most embarrassing!


  3. This is going to sound very wet-blanketish but ever since I was involved in a discussion with a Jewish theologian some years ago I’ve been unable to listen to the Messiah without a little voice saying “This is extremely hurtful to Jews and grossly anti-Semitic” – which dampens my appreciation of the music and would-be transcendent moments. Michael Marissen published a book on this a few years ago (‘Tainted glory in Handel’s Messiah’ Yale UP, 2014). In an interview in ‘Publishers Weekly’ in the same year he suggested “the music expresses (the) tension that exists between aesthetics and ethics, and I think that to be able to live in that tension is what it means to be a serious religious person” (https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/religion/article/61535-pw-talks-with-michael-marissen-a-tainted-messiah.html). For me, now, the ethics pretty well outweigh the aesthetics as far as the Messiah is concerned. I would just add, only slightly tongue in cheek, that I find a similar tension characterises much modern Christian hymnody.


  4. I think the sense of over-triumphalism is less there in the music, when seen in the context of the whole oratorio, than in the rather odd practice of standing for that one chorus, as if it is the heart of the whole work. The Hallelujah chorus needs to be seen as part of a far more complex whole, that acknowledges a suffering servant, and in the following number gently and warmly affirms the prospect of resurrection in ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ (even if it is a strange use of a text from Job.) Jennens’ project may have been to affirm a theistic Christian God over against Deism and other monotheistic faiths, but I don’t think that is inherent and there are surely different interpretations possible. I have to say though, that I agree that my beloved St John Passion raises the issue rather more starkly for me.


  5. Classical music doesn’t really do it for me, but there are four songs which are guaranteed to bring tears to my eyes this Christmas and they are:
    O Holy Night (total reverence for Divine love)
    C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S by Jim Reeves (we can’t have Christmas without Christ)
    Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen (the frailties of human love)
    A Fairy-tale of New York by The Pogues (get past the earthy language and this is a beautiful song of shattered dreams and how human love endures)


  6. ‘I did my best, it wasn’t much,
    I couldn’t feel so I tried to touch,
    I’ve told the truth and I didn’t come to fool ya,
    And even though it all went wrong,
    I’ll stand before the Lord of song,
    With nothing on my lips but
    Hallelujah …..’
    (Leonard Cohen)


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