Handel’s Messiah: A Seeming Miracle Itself

By: Ellen T. Harris (MIT) //

The following excerpt focuses on two of Handel’s most famous oratorios, Israel in Egypt and Messiah, considering the political and religious context of their composition and the impact of their music. Oratorios are dramatic compositions, usually set to religious, and often Biblical, texts, as is the case here, and performed without any staging as concert pieces. At the time these oratorios were composed, Protestant England was in conflict politically with Catholic Spain and France. English Protestants, however, were concerned less about the religious threat of Catholicism than with the rise of Deism, a rationalist philosophy that denied the existence of miracles or prophecy. While including reference to these political and religious issues, the two oratorios also contain some of the most astonishing music ever written.

From George Frideric Handel: A Life with Friends by Ellen T. Harris (W. W. Norton & Company, 2014).

The text of Israel in Egypt, prepared for Handel probably by Charles Jennens, is, like Jennens’s libretto of Messiah, a collage of passages from the Bible. In Part I, the Israelites mourn the death of their leader, Joseph. Part II depicts the rise of Moses, the plagues visited on Egypt, and the safe departure of the Israelites through the parting of the Red Sea. Part III celebrates the Israelites’ freedom from captivity and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the sea. It is this celebratory third part that can be tied to British objectives in the War with Spain: its citizens will be freed from captivity and the enemy sunk in the sea. The elimination of Spanish competition on British trade routes is especially emphasized, with some statement occurring in fully half of the movements about the drowning of the enemy, including: “The Horse and his Rider has He thrown into the Sea”; “Pharoah’s Chariots, and his Host, Hath he cast into the Sea”; “His chosen Captains also are drowned in the Red-Sea”; “The Depths have cover’d them, they sank into the Bottom as a Stone”; “Thou didst blow with the Wind; the Sea covered them, they sank as Lead in the mighty Waters.” Handel treats these celebratory texts of Parts II and III with the power and forcefulness that forms such an important attribute of his music. George Bernard Shaw describes it perfectly:

It was from Handel that I learned that style consists in force of assertion . . . When he tells you that when the Israelites went out of Egypt, “there was not one feeble person in all their tribes,” it is utterly useless for you to plead that there must have been at least one case of influenza. Handel will not have it: “There was not one, not one feeble person in all their tribes,” and the orchestra repeats it in curt, smashing chords that leave you speechless.1

This was not Handel’s most inspired music, however, and it was left, ironically, for the Catholic composer Thomas Arne to capture the political moment in his English opera Alfred (1740), performed privately at first, based on the history of Alfred the Great, who in the ninth century had defended England against a Viking invasion. Arne’s setting of “Rule, Britannia!” is still sung today, and its origin at the time of the war with Spain clearly explains the otherwise odd-seeming reference to British slavery in the refrain: “Rule, Britannia! Rule the waves: Britons never will be slaves.”

When Handel came to set the text of Israel in Egypt, it was the plagues that fired his imagination. When he first spoke of the work to Lady Knatchbull […] early in December of 1738, he referred to it as “the ten plagues of Egypt,” which Knatchbull confessed in a letter to Harris seemed to her an “odd subject.” Handel told her specifically that “the storm of thunder is to be bold and fine, & the thick silent darkness is to be express’d in a very particular piece of musick.”2 Indeed, the remarkable scenic depictions of the plagues create a dramatic, musical trajectory of striking power. To depict the first plague, for example, which depicts the River Nile turning into blood, Handel expanded one of his keyboard fugues into full chorus; the angularity of its opening with large, sometimes dissonant, intervals perfectly depicts the sense of aversion in the text (“They loathed to drink of the River”); the successive notes seem not to want to touch but to jump as far away as possible not only from each other but also from the blood that flows in a viscous melodic descent throughout the setting. https://www.youtube.com/embed/vWjCgzf9AoU

The excerpt of the plagues from Handel’s Israel in Egypt comes from a recording conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras in 1970. It uses modern instruments and large chorus, but adheres to performing practices of Handel’s day and sounds more full-bodied than the smaller forces of many period renditions. Listen to the plagues beginning at 13:05.

Jennens combined three plagues in the next movement: the frogs, bovine pestilence, and human skin disease; but what caught Handel’s imagination were the frogs. The only plague movement set for solo voice rather than chorus, it suggests that the king’s minister himself is expressing his indignation: “Their Land brought forth Frogs,” he sings, “yea, even in their King’s Chambers.” The frogs hop unimpeded in the violins before the voice enters, joined at the very end of the introduction by one giant frog in the bass. When the vocal line is extended on the first syllable of “chambers,” the dotted rhythms make it sound as if the singer is repeatedly trying to catch the frogs without success. At the return of the opening textual phrase (“Their Land brought forth Frogs”), there is a pause in the voice as if to contemplate the situation, and then the singer, reaching a peak of exasperation, erupts with the single word “frogs!” in the upper range (an effect that works particularly well in the countertenor voice). But the frogs persist in the background even through the blotches and blains, and then take over once again in the orchestral conclusion. If one is tempted to giggle at the frogs, as I am, then the combination of flies, lice, and locusts in the next movement with violins whirring at thirty-two notes to a measure may bring forth a full-throated chortle. These seemingly humorous touches, however, make the effect of the succeeding plagues even starker.

The beginning of the hailstone chorus perfectly depicts the start of a major storm: big, single raindrops plop one after the other. Very quickly, these build into a storm of immense power, with thunder rumbling in the timpani and lightning running along the ground in the bass. The ferocity of this movement dissipates somewhat at the end, but even so there is no preparation for the thick darkness of the next. Starting with a single slow, throbbing note, Handel adds pitches one after another until a thick and opaque harmonic texture is created. The chorus quietly intones, “He sent a thick Darkness over all the land, even Darkness, which might be felt.” As the orchestral pulsating increases into a kind of vibration (but still with thick, slowly moving harmonies), the fear becomes palpable. No longer willing to speak together, the chorus is reduced to frightened, whispery fragments of melody, first in one vocal range and then in another, and they never again cohere. The movement ends without a firm cadence in the voice. The sense of terrifying anticipation this creates is then released in the greatest horror of all: “He smote all the first-born of Egypt.” From the hushed sounds of strings and dusky bassoon representing the thick darkness, one is catapulted into full orchestra with three trombones playing at full volume. The chorus spits out the text, and accented hammer strokes cutting through the texture at frequent and regular intervals depict the killing.

Handel’s management of the succession of plagues is masterful. He must have known the tendency to laugh at the trials of one’s enemies, and he captured that sentiment in the early movements only to shatter it. With the hailstones and thick darkness (the two movements he particularly mentioned to Lady Knatchbull) he eradicated aversion and amusement with power and fear, the whole trajectory leading to the dreadful slaughter of the firstborn children. In Israel in Egypt, Handel is more successful (and appears to be more comfortable) instilling pity and terror than depicting triumph at destruction.

Israel in Egypt, whatever its political message, contained a significant anti-Deist stance in its presentation of God’s interventions on behalf of the enslaved Israelites: the plagues visited on the Egyptians and the parting of the Red Sea. For the rationalists these were events that could be explained by natural causes, but Jennens’s libretto insists on them being divine miracles. Messiah, Jennens’s next “scriptural collection” for Handel, also can be understood as an anti-Deist text.3 The inclusion of Old Testament prophecy emphasizes the Virgin birth (“Behold, a Virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son”) as well as Christ’s miracles (“Then shall the Eyes of the Blind be open’d, and the Ears of the Deaf unstopped; then shall the lame Man leap as a Hart, and the Tongue of the Dumb shall sing”). And the presentation of the life of Christ largely through Old Testament texts, offers a “proof” of Christianity as the fulfillment of messianic prophecy. Jennens hoped that Handel would “lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it.”4

Handel’s score is indeed a magnificent achievement, a seeming miracle itself, composed and orchestrated as it was in only twenty-four days. Messiah’s global reach is nowhere more evident than in the popularity of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” which may be the best-known piece of classical music ever written. The movement comes at the end of Part II in celebration of the ultimate victory of Christianity on Earth. Jennens’s decision to precede this movement with texts of military victory suggests that, as in Israel in Egypt, the text of Messiah refers to the war with Spain, to contemporary concerns that France would join with Spain in Catholic opposition (“The Kings of the Earth Rise up”), and a belief that God’s son would intervene and save his people (who were understood in general to be Protestants, but more specifically, the Church of England) just as God protected the Israelites in Egypt (“Thou shalt break them [the enemies of the Church of England] with a Rod of Iron”).

The excerpt of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah is performed by The English Concert under the direction of Trevor Pinnock. It gives a very clear and vibrant rendering of the chorus as Handel might have heard it.

Would Handel have perceived the texts in such specific, political terms? It seems unlikely. He understood jubilation, however. The text of the “Hallelujah Chorus” contains three distinct textual statements in addition to the exclamation of “hallelujah.” Between and in the midst of the chorus’s exuberant iterations of hallelujahs, Handel gives sustained and highly differentiated musical profiles to these statements. He sets “For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth” for full chorus and orchestra joined together in a single melodic line with no rhythmic or harmonic digressions. The musical monophony (the chorus singing a single line of music) depicts the monotheistic (one) God, and the word “omnipotent,” leaping down and up an octave, encompasses the entire “universe” of a complete musical scale. After its first presentation for full chorus, the theme then appears in the lower voices and rises through the chorus finally to “reign” over outbursts of hallelujahs. To depict “The Kingdom of this World is become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ,” Handel sets the “Kingdom of this World” in reduced orchestration (strings only) and restricted range, reserving an explosion of light and sound (expanding into a high register and adding trumpets and drums) for the “Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.” The juxtaposition is startling no matter how many times one hears it. Finally, he sets “and He shall reign for ever and ever” as a round (or to use more official terminology, a canon), projecting Christ’s reign into infinity with a form that has no end. Handel brings the movement to a close with an acceleration of hallelujahs driving into an anticipatory grand pause in all voices that releases into a single, sustained HAL-LE-LU-JAH.

For Discussion

  1. The text for Israel in Egypt makes frequent reference to contemporaneous events, such as the War with Spain. How much does our understanding of this oratorio depend on knowing the work’s historical context? How might we apply this text about conflict and war to our own time?
  2. Handel’s music depicts the action and emotion of the text, and his made decisions about these musical depictions based on musical practices of his time. Choose one of the plagues Harris discusses and re-imagine how you might depict the emotion and action here in a manner consistent with current musical practices.

1 George Bernard Shaw, The Great Composers: Reviews and Bombardments by Bernard Shaw, ed. Louis Crompton (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 77–78.

2 Katherine Knatchbull to Harris (postscript of 9 December in a letter of 5 December 1738). Burrows, Donald, and Rosemary Dunhill, eds. Music and Theatre in Handel’s World: The Family Papers of James Harris 1732–1780 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 66.

3 Jennens’s authorship of the libretto for Israel in Egypt cannot be fully documented, but his reference to the preparation of the libretto of Messiah 
in a letter of 10 July 1741 as “another Scriptural Collection” he hoped to persuade Handel to set makes it as sure as it can be without proof. These are Handel’s only two librettos based entirely on scriptural texts.

4 Letter of Jennens to his friend Edward Holdsworth (10 July 1741), as quoted in Donald Burrows, Handel Messiah (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 11.

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