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12 Reasons to Listen to Handel’s “Messiah”

December 24, 2018


As a Catholic, my favorite work of classical music—an oratorio composed by a devout Lutheran, with text compiled from the King James Bible by a devout Anglican—might be an unconventional one.

I was always drawn toward Handel’s Messiah, but it was the frenetic energy of the Les Musiciens du Louvre version conducted by Marc Minkowski—paired with footage of gamblersinmates, and various social misfits in the strange but compelling 1999 documentary Messiah—that sealed the deal. In recent years, I’ve been listening to the oratorio year-round. I play it in our home, in our Honda, in my headphones—enough that it’s become a sort of running joke with my wife.

I can’t justify my love for Handel with any classical musical training; aside from nervously scratching at a single cello string and incoherently slapping a piano as a hopeless young music student, I have none. I also can’t lean on any deep musical knowledge; there are many great (and maybe greater) works I’ve never heard, and probably never will. I can only say that I love music that conveys great truths with great gusto—and I believe that Handel’s Messiah does that, and does it exceptionally well.

If you haven’t listened to Handel’s Messiah (or listened to it much), here are 12 reasons to start.

1. It’s beautiful. 

Thomas Aquinas argued that something is beautiful when it has three qualities: wholeness, harmony, and radiance. Handel’s Messiah has all three. It has wholeness: the entire work is ultimately about one thing (the Messiah). It has harmony: all of its complementary elements fit together. And it has radiance: a splendor and a kind of shining magnificence. If you like beautiful music, you’ll like Messiah.

2. Yet it can get dark.

The oratorio is probably most well-known for its climactic “Hallelujah” chorus and its association with the Christmas season (see 9 and 10 below). But that structural harmony balances a joy and exuberance with dire prophetic warnings (“But Who May Abide”) and moments of great anguish and sorrow (e.g., “He Was Despised”).

3. It was controversial when it was released.

To postmodern ears, there is nothing daring or dangerous about Handel’s Messiah. But the premiere in Ireland in 1742 and later performances in England the following year caused great controversy for bringing an exalted sacred work into the coarse secular space of the theater (as well as for joining a cathedral choir with a soloist embroiled in public moral scandal). In Ireland, Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels and then-dean of Saint Patrick’s, initially threatened to forbid cathedral singers from participating, and in England, Handel changed the “blasphemous” title to “A New Sacred Oratorio” to diffuse the tension.

4. It was written in English.

So many works of classical music were originally written in a foreign language and only later translated into English. But Messiah was written in English for English speakers—and there’s something unique and engaging about that. Of course, some of the wording, pronunciation, and cadence can still trick our modern (especially American) ears, which is why I would recommend reading and following along with the text. If you do, you can understand, memorize, and (of course) sing along with the original work.

5. It’s rooted in the Old Testament.

If you click on the link above, you’ll notice that the oratorio is composed entirely of Scripture passages. These passages, originally compiled by Charles Jennens, give us a compelling snapshot of the whole Bible and the importance of understanding Christ as the climax to the story of Israel. Old Testament passages—especially from Isaiah and the Psalms—tell of Israel’s prophetic longing for an Anointed One (“mashiach”) who would gather God’s people, restore their Temple, defeat their enemies, and reveal the glory of the Lord to the whole world.

6. It’s Christocentric.

And in the New Testament passages, we meet the suffering servant who accomplished it all—and in the most surprising way. Because it’s deeply Scriptural, Handel’s Messiah is also deeply Christocentric. In other words, it’s all about the person of Christ: his identity as the God of Israel incarnate, and his mission to take away the sins of the world. “I hope [Handel] will lay out his whole genius and skill upon it,” Jennens wrote to a friend, “that the composition may excel all his former compositions, as the subject excels every other subject. The Subject is Messiah.”

7. It’s ecumenical. 

For the previous two reasons, Messiah is also a work of ecumenism—something like a musical Mere Christianity. That’s not to say that the theological differences between Christians don’t exist or shouldn’t be debated; it’s simply to say that the beauty of Messiah can unite Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians in celebrating and deepening their biblically-rooted faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ—which, as the age becomes increasingly secularized and sentimentalized, is an increasingly remarkable unity.

8. It’s educational.

Of course, Messiah isn’t just for Christians. For those of non-Christian religions or of no religion it all, the oratorio offers a kind of education—not only in music but also in history, theology, Judaism and Christianity, and of course the Bible, which remains a critical piece of a good education. Literary critic Harold Bloom said that the King James Bible stands at “the sublime summit of literature in English” next to Shakespeare—and even if one doesn’t believe what Scripture teaches, Messiah can aid in understanding and appreciating it.

9. It’s great for Advent and Christmas.

I often heard Handel’s Messiah in my home around Christmas time growing up (which might go a long way in explaining my personal affinity for it). From the prophecies of Christ’s birth in Isaiah (“For unto us a child is born”) to the infancy narrative in Luke (“Glory to God in the highest”), Part I of the oratorio is filled with the excitement and anticipation of Advent and the magic and joy of Christmas.

10. But it’s also relevant throughout the year.

Yet Messiah is so much more than a Christmas composition. Part II brings us through Christ’s death and resurrection and the early preaching of the Gospel, while Part III meditates on the day of judgment and the heavenly worship of the Lamb of God for all eternity. It’s relevant during Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter—and all year round.

11. It opens up with time.

Great works of art should expand, not contract, the more you listen to them—and this has been my experience with Messiah. The more I listen to it, the more it opens up—not just regarding the life of Christ, but also God’s radical solidarity with the lowly and weak, the relative weakness and futility of worldly strength, and the mysteries of human iniquity and mortality. No matter what is happening in my own life or in the world around me, Messiah always feels relevant and profound.

12. It’s evangelically powerful.

For all the reasons above, Handel’s Messiah has great evangelical power. Its beauty, grit, and intelligibility can guide listeners—who may have never met the Messiah, or at least never been properly introduced—toward the explosiveness of the kerygma: the proclamation of Christ as Lord and Savior of the world, and an invitation to get to know him, to fall more and more in love with him, and to follow him.