Handel’s most recognized work begins with words of comfort from the prophet Isaiah. The libretto from MESSIAH explores the prophecies leading to the birth of Christ and the angelic joys of his arrival on Christmas morning. Accompanied by a professional orchestra, we present the Christmas portion of this magnificent oratorio, and also the Hallelujah chorus.
PROGRAM NOTES AND TEXTS
By Dr. Stephen J. Mulder
My earliest memories of MESSIAH are from old LPs in my parent’s record collection: the worn onion skin sleeves and the embossed cover with neutral colors except for the swath of a purple robe. I would listen and sing along (the soprano part) with the choruses, mostly skipping over the recitatives and arias. I was proud that I could hit the high note on “And the glory of the Lord.” Decorating the Christmas tree each year was accompanied by a MESSIAH soundtrack. I would test the limits of our stereo speakers with “Worthy is the Lamb.” I get the same aesthetic chills up my spine just thinking about the tenor part as they burst out: “blessing and honor, glory and power be unto him, be unto him!”
My parents took me to performances of MESSIAH at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, at an age when I couldn’t fully take it all in, generally falling asleep in Part 2 until the familiar and rousing strains of “Hallelujah” woke me up, and I stood with everyone to experience the grandeur and majesty of this familiar chorus. I remember being surprised (and somewhat disappointed) that there was MORE after “Hallelujah.”
I understood then that this work was the story of Jesus and that it traced his birth, death, and resurrection. I recognized immediately the beauty of the music and that MESSIAH was undeniably special. It was not until much later that I was able to see how unique the libretto is.
Unlike many oratorios, there are no named characters telling the story: no Elijah, or Matthew, or even John the Baptist. Christopher Hogwood explains:
Messiah is not typical Handel oratorio; there are no named characters, as are usually found in Handel’s setting of the Old Testament stories, possibly to avoid charges of blasphemy. It is a meditation rather than a drama of personalities, lyrical in method; the narration of the story is carried on by implication, and there is no dialogue.
The story is told through meditative “scenes,” each revealing a characteristic of the Messiah, Jesus. Each scene is introduced by a soloist singing narratives (recitatives) and reflections (arias or “airs”). The chorus punctuates each scene with their response, often completing the train of thought from the soloist. This explains why the titles of the choruses often begin with conjunctions (…”And the glory of the Lord”,…”For unto us a child is born”, …”And he shall purify”).
The first time I conducted a performance of MESSIAH with an orchestra, I was living in North Carolina. I was asked to conduct a community Messiah-Sing at the Wesley Center on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. The instrumentalists, soloists and I were positioned on the small stage area, and the chorus/audience sat in sections in the pews on the ground level and in the balcony. I had a brief rehearsal with the soloists, but the choruses were performed “cold,” relying on the previous Messiah-singing experience of the singers. Some choruses were nearly perfectly sung—”And the glory of the Lord”, “Glory to God”, and of course “Hallelujah.” Others were sung barely hanging on, as the mostly amateur singers tried to navigate the Baroque ornamentation and 16th-note melisma passages. The chorus is better rehearsed for tonight’s performance, and we are prepared and ready to share the delight and majesty of this great masterwork.
SCENE 1- Comfort and Restoration
2. Comfort ye my people
3. Ev’ry valley shall be exalted
4. And the glory of the Lord
MESSIAH begins with an overture (“Sinfony” in Handel’s score) in French overture style with two sections: the first slower with dotted rhythms and the second faster using fugal, imitative counterpoint. The first section ends with a half-cadence, sounding unfinished, and the faster section resolves back to the home key.
Scene 1 is told by the tenor soloist, presenting the words of Isaiah, and telling of comfort and restoration. The chorus affirms the prophecy with surety: “the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it!”
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40: 1-3)
Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry moutain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain. (Isaiah 40: 4)
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. (Isaiah 40: 5)
SCENE 2- Purified with fire
5. Thus saith the Lord
6. But who may abide the day of his coming?
7. And he shall purify
Scene 2 is told by the bass soloist, using words from Old Testament prophets Haggai and Malachi that speak of refiner’s fire and purification. It is a contrasting meditation to the comfort of Scene 1.
Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts: Yet once a little while and I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land.
And I will shake all nations; and the desire of all nations shall come. (Haggai 2: 6-7)
The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple, even the messenger of the Covenant, whom you delight in; behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3: 1)
But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner’s fire. (Malachi 3: 2)
And He shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. (Malachi 3: 3)
SCENE 3- Prophecy of the virgin birth
8. Behold, a virgin shall conceive
9. O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion
Scene 3 is told by the alto soloist. Even though most Part 1 words are from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, they are remarkably specific and accurate. Indeed, nearly all of the “Christmas portion” of MESSIAH is told through prophecy.
Instead of an independent chorus in this scene, the choir picks up the alto Air and it turns into an exuberant, joyful expression. The chorus alternates between imitative counterpoint (that creates a sense of growing urgency and excitement) and homophonic unity as the voices sing the “behold” and “arise” phrases.
Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Emmanuel, God with us. (Isaiah 7: 14; Matthew 1: 23)
O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain. O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, behold your God! (Isaiah 40: 9)
Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. (Isaiah 60: 1)
SCENE 4- The Light of the World comes to a people living in darkness
10. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth
11. The people that walked in darkness
12. For unto us a child is born
Scene 4 is told by the bass soloist, beginning in movement 10 with the orchestra providing an ominous accompaniment (not unlike the “Jaws” theme!) in the key of b minor. Halfway through the recitative, the mood changes and the bass soloist sings “but the Lord shall arise”, as the pitch rises higher and higher, predictably, and the movement finishes in F-sharp major. The Air that follows continues the instability, and even though the text includes the promise of the “great light,” the music continues to meander and feel restless, ending once again in b minor.
Then, the chorus springs to life with “For unto us a child is born”, the most regal of the Part 1 choruses. The violins saw away as the choir proclaims the various names given to the promised Messiah.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee.
And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising. (Isaiah 60: 2-3)
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light;
and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. (Isaiah 9: 2)
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 6)
SCENE 5- Angels proclaim the birth to the shepherds
14. There were shepherds abiding in the field
15. And the angel said unto them
16. And suddenly there was with the angel
17. Glory to God
Scene 5 is told by a soprano soloist, and while it is still a meditation, there are characters in this scene—the shepherds and the angels.
The scene begins with a Pastorale (or “Pifa” in Handel’s score): an instrumental movement suggesting a calm and peaceful hillside. Here the music itself is part of the story. While the music certainly suggests shepherds on the hillside, it also has a certain “awe and wonder” about it. I like to imagine that this instrumental music allows us a moment to reflect on the mystery of the virgin birth–the gravity of the moment that the Word made flesh took his first breath. Whether it evokes the hillside or the stable, the Pifa sets the tone for the pivotal moment in Part 1 when prophecy is fulfilled and the Messiah arrives.
The familiar words of the Christmas story from Luke 2 are presented with increasing tempo and increasing rhythmic energy, until the chorus emerges to play the role of the angels singing “Glory to God!”
There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. (Luke 2: 8)
And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. (Luke 2: 9)
And the angel said unto them: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2: 10-11)
And suddenly there was with the angel, a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying: (Luke 2: 13)
“Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will towards men.” (Luke 2: 14)
SCENE 6- Messiah brings peace, healing, comfort, and relief
18. Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion
19. Then shall the eyes of the blind
20. He shall feed his flock
21. His yoke is easy, and his burthen is light
Scene 6 provides a meditation on the ministry of Jesus. “Rejoice greatly” is a fiery soprano Air with a central message of peace.
The alto portion of “He shall feed his flock” creates a picture of the Good Shepherd and the way he cares for his sheep, providing nourishment and safety. The soprano voices takes over, after a modulation, and extends the invitation of the Savior: “Come unto me… and I will give you rest.”
The chorus concludes Part 1 by completing the theme of comfort: “His yoke is easy and his burthen is light.” (Ironically, this is probably the most difficult chorus in MESSIAH.)
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, thy King cometh unto thee; He is the righteous Savior, and He shall speak peace unto the heathen. (Zecharaiah 9: 9-10)
Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing. (Isaiah 35: 5-6)
He shall feed His flock like a shepherd; and He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. (Isaiah 40: 11)
Come unto Him, all ye that labor, come unto Him that are heavy laden, and He will give you rest.
Take his yoke upon you, and learn of Him, for He is meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls. (Matthew 11: 28-29)
His yoke is easy, and His burden is light. (Matthew 11: 30)
No performance of MESSIAH is complete without the singing of the “Hallelujah” chorus, and we are happy to perform this “encore” as a Christmas bonus for our audience.
We are very grateful for all of the support Griffin Choral Arts has received throughout the pandemic year and especially as we have re-emerged this fall for Season 15. We wish you and your family all the best for the holiday season and look forward to a prosperous and healthy 2022.
Tenor soloist is Cory Klose
Bass soloist is Dr. Matthew Hoch, voice faculty at Auburn University
Soprano soloists are from within GCA membership, including Valerie Clark Gill (“Rejoice greatly”), Allison Carter (“He shall feed his flock”- duet with Holly McCarren), and 15-year-old Adison Smith (the recitatives and airs leading up to “Glory to God”). Adi is an alumnus of the GCA Children’s Chorus and currently our youngest GCA singer. She comes to rehearsal each week with her dad, Brandon, who is a GCA tenor.
Michele Mariage Volz, concertmaster
Elizabeth Derderian Wood
Cathy Willis Garmon