Until recently, tickets for this were free. Now the charge is a nominal $10 to help cover some of the expenses. Except for the four solo singers, the other professional and amateur performers volunteer their time. The tickets sell out quickly, and every performance is jammed with thousands of people. It's all organized by the International Music Foundation, originally established by Al Booth, which supports hundreds of free classical music concerts around the Chicago area.
Handel's Messiah is an oratorio written for an orchestra, four solo singers, and a chorus. At a Do-It-Yourself Messiah the choral singing is done by the entire audience. Audience members are seated according to their vocal range--soprano, alto, tenor, and bass-baritone--corresponding to the four parts in the choral singing. At this performance, conductor Stanley Sperber began by leading the audience through thirty minutes of rehearsal. The success of all this depends on having lots of people in the audience who know the music well enough and have enough singing skill that they can take the lead for others in the audience with less knowledge and skill. People come to the performance with well-worn copies of the vocal score, indicating their seriousness in their study and performance of Handel's music.
This is instructive in at least two ways. First, it shows how the natural desire for the musical arts stimulates communities in a free society to organize musical events as largely spontaneous orders with only minimal governmental planning. If they have the freedom to do so, human beings will seek out the high cultural activity of the fine arts to satisfy their longing for aesthetic beauty. Critics of liberal democracy like to speak disdainfully about the cultural mediocrity of bourgeois life in liberal societies and lament (with the later Nietzsche) the flat soul of the "last man." Events like this remind us that a liberal social order allows people in civil society--in their families, their churches, their schools, their arts organizations, and other social institutions--to express and cultivate moral, intellectual, and artistic excellence.
This also shows how the natural desire for religious understanding drives the enduring appeal of religious art as shaping the religious culture of human life, even in a liberal pluralist society without the coercive legal enforcement of religious belief.
As the title indicates, Handel's Messiah tells the story of Jesus as the Messiah--as the Son of God who fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies of one who would be sent by God to redeem human beings of their sins, who would be born of a virgin, suffer and die, be resurrected, and return to defeat Satan and to bring the resurrection of the believers to eternal life. The libretto for the oratorio was written by Charles Jennens, who drew the words from the Bible, mostly Old Testament texts that were cited in the New Testament as prophecies of a Messiah that were fulfilled by Jesus. Handel then composed his music for orchestra and voice to animate Jennens' Biblical story with the emotional charm of music.
The Messiah was first performed in 1742. This was a time of intense debate between orthodox Christians and Deists over the Bible. Beginning in the seventeenth century--with books like John Toland's Christianity Not Mysterious (1696)--the Deists had argued that once God had created the universe and human beings, He left human beings to live by their own natural reason, with no need for divine intervention or supernatural redemption. They thought Jesus was not divine, and there was no need to see him as the Messiah. Many orthodox Christians regarded Deism as a disguised form of atheism. To answer the arguments of the Deists, many books were written by orthodox Christians claiming to prove that Jesus was the Messiah, because he fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. Jennens knew these books, and in composing his libretto, he was probably consciously contributing to this debate. Handel's setting of the libretto for music was designed to infuse the Biblical texts with the emotional power of music. This history of the Messiah as an answer to the Deists is surveyed in Ruth Smith's Handel's Oratorios and Eighteenth-Century Thought (Cambridge University Press, 1995) and Calvin Stapert's Handel's "Messiah": Comfort for God's People (Eerdmans Publishing, 2010).
Like other oratorios, the Messiah serves both the theater and the church. This created a controversy during its early years of performance. Some people thought it was too sacred for performance in a theater, while others thought it was too theatrical for performance in a church. Today, it's commonly performed both in churches and in theaters, and modern audiences see no conflict here. Christians can see it as a powerful statement of their faith. Those who are not Christians can appreciate the artistry of its emotional religiosity without embracing its doctrinal faith. All can see it as a sublime expression of the religious longings of the human soul. A liberal social order fosters a pluralist diversity in religious allegiances, while also allowing people from different faith traditions and those without any religious faith to come together in communal celebrations like a Do-It-Yourself Messiah.
So does the Messiah refute the deistic denial that Jesus was the Messiah?
After an overture, the Messiah begins with three movements (2-4) that use the words of Isaiah 40:1-5 (from the King James translation):
"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. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low: the crooked straight and the rough places plain. 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."The New Testament identifies "the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness" as John the Baptist (Matt. 3:1-3, Mark 1:1-3, Luke 1:17, and John 1:23), and thus Jesus is identified as the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament in whom "the glory of the Lord shall be revealed."
But if one looks at the context for this passage in Isaiah, it becomes clear that the Messiah identified by Isaiah is Cyrus, the King of the Persians, who invaded Babylon in 539 B.C. and liberated the people of Israel from their captivity, so that they could return to Jerusalem and restore the Temple (Isa. 41:1-7, 44:28-45:7). As the Deists pointed out, this is generally true of the Old Testament passages interpreted by Christians as prophecies of Jesus as the Messiah: if one looks at the contexts of the Old Testament passages, one sees that prophecies of a Messiah were references to political leaders in the history of Israel.
I must have been one of the very few people in the audience in the Harris Theater who thought about this--Cyrus is the Messiah, not Jesus!--while singing "And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together."
I remembered that Koresh is the Hebrew word for "Cyrus." When a young man, Vernon Howell, joined an apocalyptic sect called the Branch Davidians, he renamed himself "David Koresh," thus invoking both Cyrus and David as messianic figures of the Hebrew Bible. He led his followers into martyrdom in a standoff with federal law-enforcement agents in Waco, Texas, in 1993, which Koresh saw as the battle of Armageddon and the fulfillment of the prophecies in the book of Revelation.
I'm sure most of the audience was enjoying Handel's music. For example, one feature of Handel's musical art is "madrigalism"--the technique prominent in the madrigals of the Renaissance of musically imitating a word or phrase in the music. Explaining movement number 4, Stapert writes:
"All this leads to the climactic chorus: 'And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.' The text features four components. Handel gave each its own characteristic musical gesture and combined them in a variety of ways within the overall framework of a lively dance. The phrase 'And the glory of the Lord' is always sung to a rising line that reaches its peak on 'Lord.' 'Shall be revealed' always descends, suggesting the incarnation. . . . 'And all flesh shall see it together' is suggestive of a down-to-earth rustic dance; its music is simple, repetitive, and rhythmically infectious. The fourth phrase, 'for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it,' stands out from the rest. To suggest the rock-solid certainty of God's word, Handel set the phrase to long, strong, repeated notes. It is sung only by the outer voices, framing the music from top to bottom" (92).So here is Handel's musical refutation of Deism. Even if our careful reading of the Biblical text suggests that it is referring to Cyrus and not Jesus, we cannot resist Handel's musical rhetoric that teaches us that Jesus is the Messiah "for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it." What we might know intellectually is swept away by the emotional persuasion of his musical art.
We might have the same experience in hearing movement number 8 based on Isaiah 7:14: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call His name Emmanuel, God with us." If we're studying this verse, we might notice that the King James translators followed the Greek Septuagint text, which has the Greek word parthenos for "virgin," rather than the Hebrew Bible, which has the word almah, meaning "young woman." Is God speaking differently in Greek and Hebrew? Or do we see here that the Bible was written by different human beings with different ideas?
Of Handel's music here, Stapert writes: "Unlike the recitatives in the previous scenes, this one is secco, accompanied only by the harpsichord and cello. The simple, natural declamation of the voice matches its minimal accompaniment. The great mystery of the virgin birth is appropriately announced with little fuss" (97). Thus is our scholarly quibbling about the text swept away by the simple power of Handel's music.
Of course, the most familiar and most popular part of the Messiah is the Hallelujah Chorus, movement number 44, the last movement of Part Two: "Hallelujah! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth! Hallelujah! The Kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever. King of Kings and Lord of Lords" (Revelation 19:6, 11:15, 19:16).
Revelation is the bloodiest book of the New Testament, because it describes the last battle in history between the armies of Christ and the armies of Satan. Although Jennens does not convey that militant violence here, he does indicate the violent vengefulness of God in the immediately preceding movements (42-43) with words from Psalms. "He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn; the Lord shall have them in derision" (Ps. 2:4). "Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron. Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel" (Ps. 2:9). Handel's music is emphatic in conveying God's angry violence.
Stapert writes: "A short recitative leads effectively into a vengeful aria in which Handel emphasized the verbs 'break' and 'dash.' The violins' melody is broken by large leaps. It starts high with a fast, quavering motive, which might depict shaking with rage or derisive laughter--or both. Then follows a large downward leap to two accented eighth notes. . . . The instrumental bass part and the voice part are full of rests that literally break their melodic lines into little pieces. In the voice part the words 'BREAK them,' 'DASH them,' and 'PIE-ces' invariably occur on downward leaps, illustrative of throwing down, dashing to the ground" (130).
Why should we sing "Hallelujah!" to this angry God who enjoys torturing people? Stapert admits that this is disturbing. But he observes: "'Thou shalt break them' is . . . out of balance unless it is taken in the context of Messiah as a whole, for in it God's love far overshadows his anger" (132).
But if this is true, it is only because the Messiah says nothing about the teaching of orthodox Christianity that most human beings will be eternally punished after death in Hell. The afterlife is the primary subject of Part Three of the Messiah. Relying primarily on the 15th chapter of First Corinthians, Jennens' text proclaims the eternal resurrection of dead bodies to life--"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" (movement number 46, I Cor. 15:21-22). There is no explanation or description of what a resurrected body would be like. Will we have exactly the body that we had at death? Or will we be given the body of a 30-year-old, as Augustine claimed? This is left as a mystery: "Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be chang'd, in a moment, in the twinkling of any eye, at the last trumpet" (movement number 47, I Cor. 15:51-52). And nothing is said about the resurrection of those who will be condemned to eternal punishment. Do Jennens and Handel fail to mention this because it raises questions about God's loving mercy, or because they actually don't believe in Hell? This silence about Hell is good for audiences today, since it seems that most Biblical believers today don't believe in Hell and eternal punishment.
Thus does studying the Messiah raise difficult theological and philosophical questions. But such questions probably don't occur to most listeners to the Messiah--or to participants in a Do-It-Yourself Messiah--who are swept up in its musical ecstasy.
A complete performance of the Messiah can be found on YouTube., with Christopher Hogwood conducting the Academy of Ancient Music Choir in Westminster Abbey.
Some posts on related topics can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.