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