Mesa Musings: 'Messiah' keeps on living

George Frideric Handel's "Messiah" is Christmas bedrock.

An otherworldly-inspired masterpiece, the oratorio is one of the most beloved works in Western choral literature.

I probably first heard the "Hallelujah" chorus as a small child on the radio, and later at the church our family attended in Newport Beach.

My father, a classical music devotee, bought a hi-fi system in the early 1950s and a stereo later that decade. We listened to Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven every evening with dinner. During the Christmas season, we listened to the "Messiah."

As a young parent in the 1970s, I blasted "Messiah" on my home stereo system. My daughters became familiar with it.

I've had a recording of "Messiah," by Neville Marriner and the Academy and Chorus of St Martin-in-the Fields, on my iPod for years. I listen to it multiple times each holiday season as I go about my early-morning walks.

I've attended "Messiah" performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa, the Robert B. Moore Theater at Orange Coast College and at numerous churches throughout the Southland.

I've probably listened to the oratorio all the way through more times than Handel himself.

Beethoven once labeled Handel "the greatest composer that ever lived." Handel wrote "Messiah" in 24 days during an intense creative frenzy in the summer of 1741, though he continued to tweak it over the remainder of his lifetime (18 years). After the composer's death, Mozart orchestrated a German version of the work.

In preparation for writing the music, Handel read Scriptures selected for the libretto. He said he was "overcome" by the power of the words. The great oratorio exploded within his mind and gushed from his quill onto paper. Handel worked day and night — often neglecting to eat — until the massive undertaking was completed.

It stands today as a work of near-miraculous proportions.

"Messiah" had its premiere in Dublin in April 1742. Handel led the performance at the harpsichord. Over the years, he conducted "Messiah" on numerous occasions.

Handel is buried at Westminster Abbey, and the inscription is passage from Job 19 prominently featured in his musical score: "I know that my Redeemer Liveth."

Though the "Hallelujah" chorus is the thing that initially attracts most to the oratorio, it is by no means its only treasure. One music critic has likened "Messiah" to the Alps, with the "Hallelujah" chorus standing apart as its Matterhorn.

The libretto includes prophesies of Christ, as well as references to His birth, miracles, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. Passages are taken directly from the King James Bible.

My grown daughters have fond memories of "Messiah" from their childhood.

In Part Two of the oratorio the chorus sings from Isaiah 53, "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way." The refrain, "All we like sheep," is sung repeatedly.

My daughter, who was 7 at the time, interpreted that line as, "Oh Levi's Jeans." We still smile when that passage is sung.

The oratorio's words and music work together symbiotically.

The tenor's aria from Isaiah, "Every valley shall be exalted," in Part One, features a melody that mimics the literal meaning of the lyrics. The chorus — led by soaring sopranos — follows with the resounding "And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed," also from Isaiah.

The chorus opens Part Two with the solemn declaration, "Behold the Lamb of God," from the Gospel of John. The chorus shortly thereafter intones the poignant "And with his stripes we are healed," from Isaiah. The chorus concludes Part Two with the towering "Hallelujah" chorus from the book of Revelation.

"The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible" forms the bulwark of Part Three. The oratorio concludes with "Worthy is the Lamb … Amen," from Revelation. It forms a worthy and satisfying conclusion to an oratorio cloaked in power and majesty.

"Messiah" never fails to move me. It communicates the true meaning of the season.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World