Each year at the beginning of Advent my daughter and I attend Messiah, performed by the Handel and Haydn Society at Boston's Symphony Hall. The orchestral and choral tour de force right through the last glorious "Amen!" leaves no doubt that The Christian Year has begun!
I wrote a blog last year on April 13 about Messiah's debut. Many of our readers commented favorably on it, so I'm rerunning it now as we approach Advent. All skill levels are represented by the performers, from world-renowned soloists down to the do-it-yourselfers gamely straining their voices to bring to their neighbors renditions that are truly awful, but heartfelt and fun.
Listen to the words and you'll feel a thrill of recognition, for most of them are from The King James Version and The Book of Common Prayer. Later, as you read your prayer book, you might hear Handel's music behind the words. Like the 1928 prayer book itself, Messiah is a work of beauty and a statement of faith. Now I have an "ear angel" and can't get the music out of my head. There's nothing for it but to get out my favorite Messiah CD, Christopher Hogwood (1980), and play it often. There are many other fine versions, but I keep coming back to this one.
April 13, 2016 -- Today is the anniversary of the premiere performance of Messiah. George Frideric Handel might have been testing the waters when he introduced his new oratorio off-season -- not before Christmas or Easter, when it might be expected to be performed, but at high noon on April 13, 1742 in Dublin, rather than London. Two of his previous works had received lukewarm receptions by London audiences, reason enough for his caution in staging an out-of-town opening.
Dubliners eagerly awaited the performance, and they were not disappointed. By opening day, word of the successful dress rehearsal had spread, fueled by ecstatic newspaper reviews. Women were instructed to wear their skirts without hoops and men were told to leave their swords at home, so that 700 could be crammed into Dublin's new Great Musick Hall, capacity 600.
Messiah tells the story of Christ's life, beginning with Old Testament prophesies of his coming, and culminating in his Resurrection and glorious Ascension. Handel's great work is performed by orchestra, choir, and soloists - soprano, alto or countertenor, tenor, and bass. The music is full of beauty and power, as are the words, taken directly from The Book of Common Prayer.
Handel's friend Charles Jennens wrote the libretto-- the text that accompanies the music. Jennens approached his task with reverence, noting that "The Subject excels every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah ..."
Jennens was a Shakespearean scholar and patron of the arts. He drew about 60 percent of the libretto from the Old Testament, and much of the text from Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer. This would have been the 1662 edition, still in use today throughout the Anglican Communion, and very similar to our American prayer book, the 1928 edition.
If you know the traditional prayer book you'll recognize in
Jennens, an Anglican and believer in the authority of scripture, used Psalms 22, 69, 16, 24, 68, 19, and 2 (in the order they are performed). Many of the Bible verses in
Messiah also come to us through the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, which is based entirely on holy scripture. For example, the Chorus from 1 Corinthians echoes the Easter Day reading on page 163 of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer:
"For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." Inspirational words coupled with soaring music: The traditional 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the King James Version of the Bible, and Messiah reinforce our common experience as Anglicans, and, to a great extent, define our culture.