10 Favorite Bible Passages in Handel’s Messiah

Can you read them without humming along?

Posted in , Dec 17, 2014

Stained glass window depicting Mary and Joseph. Hemera Technologies, Thinkstock.

I figured I’d go through and pick my favorite Bible passages in Handel’s “Messiah.” Problem is, it’s all from the Bible, either the King James Version or the psalms from the Book of Common Prayer.

At any rate, here are my selections. The real test: Can you read without humming along?

1.  I know that my redeemer liveth... (Job 19:25)
The soprano sings this in the third movement and it breaks my heart every time because I’m reminded of the many funerals where it has been sung.

The middle section comes from the New Testament, “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept” (I Cor. 15:20), but the core is Job.

2.  Comfort ye, comfort ye my people... (Isaiah 40:1)
The tenor gets to make this statement right up front at the beginning of the piece, the promise of the coming of the Lord. 

When he proclaims, “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness...” the listener is naturally reminded of John the Baptist, who did indeed prepare the way of the Lord. But the text is Isaiah.

3.  For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given...(Isaiah 9:6)
Every chorister loves to sing this. You just let your voice bounce along. It’s only when I come to the phrase “Wonderful, Counsellor...” that I wonder why there’s a comma and pause between “wonderful” and “counselor”?

Shouldn’t it be “wonderful counselor?” Maybe it was because Handel’s first language was German. But actually, the text is exactly what’s in the King James Version, with the comma (and “Counsellor” spelled with two l’s).

4.  Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion...(Zechariah 9:9)
Another soprano solo with giddy-making melismas. “What’s a melisma?” you wonder. It’s when you sing one syllable on several notes, and in this one the soprano goes up and down breathlessly on the second syllable of rejoice. It give both listener and singer the feeling of joy. 

5.  His yoke is easy and his burden is light. (Matthew 11:30)
Charles Jennens, who wrote the libretto, made a slight change in the Biblical text here, from “my yoke” and “my burden” to the third person, reminding the chorus that indeed Jesus’s yoke is easy.  But as anyone of faith knows, and any good chorister knows, singing with such ease takes commitment and practice.  

6.  Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows...(Isaiah 53:4-5)
I don’t know whether it was Jennens or Handel who decided the chorus should repeat the word “Surely” at the front, but it makes perfect sense.

Some thoughts are so big, like the concept of atonement, that you need to underline their importance before the idea is even introduced.

7.  All we like sheep have gone astray...(Isaiah 53:6)
What chorister hasn’t sung this, thinking, “Yes, I do like sheep?” Of course, “like” is a simile here, not a verb, and Handel is an exquisite word painter because he takes the chorus astray on melisma after melisma, bringing them back to the painful thought “and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

8.  Lift up your heads, O ye gates...(Psalm 24:7)
Messiah wouldn’t be such a popular choral work or have survived the test of time if it weren’t so much fun to sing. In its balance of texts from the Hebrew Scriptures and from the New Testament, it reaffirms faith in the singers and the listeners. I always want to lift up my head when I sing this.

9.  And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed...(Isaiah 40:5)
Not for nothing is Isaiah sometimes referred to as the “fifth Gospel.” With its prophecies of a savior and its theology of a suffering servant, it was often referenced in the New Testament as a reminder of the coming of the Lord. 

This chorus comes early in “Messiah,” promising musically what the text promises. “For the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it!” as will the mouths of all the singers.

10.  Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth...(Revelation 19:6)
This is it, the Hallelujah chorus. But look how the verses of Revelation were rearranged: “The kingdoms of this world...” (Revelation 11:15) comes in the middle and then you end with “King of kings and Lord of Lords” (Revelation 19:16).

Can’t argue with that. Can’t argue with any of it.

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