How long has it been since you’ve listened to any part of Handel’s Messiah? If you had to think about your answer at all, the correct response is probably ‘too long’. It is a marvelous piece of music in its own right, but even more moving for how it paints salvation history. The words are taken from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, but as Professor Kelly (of First Nights fame) has pointed out, the Messiah is not a depiction of Christ’s life in the traditional sense; rather, it is a depiction of how fallen humanity looks on as their lives are saved for them. We are given, not the Incarnation and the Resurrection, but Old Testament prophecy about the coming Messiah, the angels’ message to the shepherds, and the praises of the heavenly host at Christ’s Ascension.
I suspect that many of you know the Messiah from Christmas concerts, in which nothing but the first act and the Hallelujah Chorus are sung. This is completely understandable; but I encourage you to listen to the last two acts, as well. They are more unfamiliar to us, and for that very reason the story that is being told through the music affects us more strongly. We may know “For unto us a child is born” so well that its meaning slips from us, but when we listen to the later sections of the oratorio we suddenly realize what story is actually being told. I’d like to talk about one chorus that particularly struck me in more detail.
For portraying a very unpleasant moment in human history, “He trusted in God” is beautiful music. The only words in the piece, repeated over and over, are “He trusted in God that He would deliver him; let Him deliver him, if He delight in him.” This depicts the moment when Christ is dying, and the passersby mock him. It is the perfect music to depict universal scorn: the basses start the music (which itself sounds almost like laughing), and then are joined by the tenors, and altos, and sopranos, until the whole choir is together mocking Christ. However, it is notable that there is only one place in this piece where all the voices are in unison. For most of the piece, although the same musical phrase is repeated by all the singers, it comes in overlapping intervals, so that there is a near cacophony of competing rhythms. The only real moment of unison comes in the last three measures, when the tempo suddenly slows down to adagio and everyone sings, “if He delight in him.” Suddenly, our perspective changes. We are reminded that we already know the end of the story—that God did delight in Christ, and did deliver him, if not quite in the expected way. By the musical emphasis placed on those few words by the slower tempo and unison, all that has come before is cast in an ironic light. It is almost a musical joke, although the meaning is serious. The whole of the Messiah is filled with moments like this; it is well worth listening to in its entirety.