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Christmas Reflections - A Meditation on Handel’s Messiah
On a bright, past December afternoon, Virginia Theological Seminary hosted the Washington Philharmonic Orchestra in a “Sing-Along” performance of Handel’s Messiah. The venue was Immanuel Chapel with its acoustically crisp circular nave. Conductor and soloists stood center, immediately before the altar, with orchestra behind and choir members to the left and right. Rounded ceiling and rounded walls served to embrace the audience in rhythms of instrument and vocalist. We found ourselves in the midst of musical concord.
The oboes and strings created a somber mood. A young tenor began the first vocal movement, singing the words of the prophet Isaiah:
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:
For she hath received of the Lord’s hand.
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.
In melodious repetition a larger harmony came forth, instruments and voice proclaiming the God who is God of all comfort beckoning to his people. Handel makes skillful use of “word painting,” a technique by which the music reflects the literal meaning of a song. A second tenor sings:
Every valley shall be exalted,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low:
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough places plain.
“Valley” is sung at a low pitch. “Exalted” is a rising figure, and “mountain” forms a peak in the melody. “Hill” requires a declining pitch, and “low” returns another low note. “Crooked” is sung as a rapid figuring of four different notes, while “straight” is sung maintaining a single note. “The rough places” are illustrated musically by short, separate notes, whereas the final word “plain” extends over several measures in a series of long notes.
The music becomes both personal and transcendent, touching the deep wells of the heart.
The temporal world certainly provides its distressing circumstances. This is true in our day as it was Isaiah’s; from the tragedy of mass violence to the tyranny of the mundane – “When will my to-do list be finished?” “If only things were different.” And still, God speaks to his people, “Comfort ye.” Handel reminds us of the offer of divine consolation. He prepares a way, raising valleys, bringing mountains low, and making rough places plain. And, the way is the way to Himself, a real presence, Immanuel, God with us, potent as Handel’s music is potent, if we only have ears to hear and refuse to settle for a lesser god.
The first chorus announces the revelation of God’s glory:
And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together:
for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”
Singing chorus after chorus, attention was turned from futile ways to a child who was born, to a Son who was given. His name shall be called “Wonderful”, “Counselor”, “The Mighty God”, “The Everlasting Father”, “The Prince – of Peace.”
Igor Stravinsky proclaimed,
“The profound meaning of music and its essential aim is to promote a communion, a union of man with his fellow man and with the Supreme Being.” Take some time this Christmas to experience Messiah with friends and family. I recommend MIT Concert Choir with William Cutter directing.
Maryellen St. Cyr