by Mike Pyatt
That familiar ring of the Salvation Army’s brigade of bell ringers, Red Kettle campaign, and Silicon Valley’s cyber blitz, serve as a quasi-official notice, signaling American retailers and consumers, that the Christmas shopping season has begun. There’s a more pleasant heralding of the Season, that’s less impertinent. George Frederick Handel’s “Messiah” is universally considered as the opus of musical composition, and another tradition of Christmas worldwide. For many Americans it remains an “unwrapped Christmas gift” never having the auditory privilege of experiencing its transcending, gripping performance. None other than Beethoven himself, reportedly once said of Handel, “To him I bend the knee, for Handel is the greatest, ablest composer that ever lived.”
To the multitudes, who’ve experienced the “Messiah” over the generations-agree with Beethoven. It was proposed to Handel as an Easter performance. History has made it a universal Christmas staple. It will be performed world-wide, from The Queen’s Hall in Australia, to the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, to King’s College in Cambridge-and nearly every single major city on this revolving orb. From Baltimore to Salt Lake City, to remote Casper, Wyoming. Considered a musical rite of the Christmas season, the Baroque era oratorio that inspires listeners of all ages, and stations in life, nearly 250 years after the composer’s death. It’s undeniably a fixture of Christmas.
Born into a religious, well-to-do German family, Handel’s father, a celebrated surgeon, wanted his son to study the law. It was not to be. The inspiration for “Messiah” came from a scholar, Charles Jennens, a devout English evangelical, wealthy landowner, and patron of the arts, who was vexed at the rising influence of deism, and the portending stranglehold of the European Enlightenment on England’s orthodoxy. Jennens delivered his libretto to Handel. Historians conclude, though inspired by Jennens’ treatise, a polemic of the essentials of the Christian doctrines, it was Handel’s transcendent music that transformed it into the timeless and inspirational work we revere to this day. Handel was in his 60’s when he composed numerous oratorios, operas, anthems and organ concertos, with Biblical themes.
As Handel composed “Messiah” the music and Biblical text so moved him that he completed the entire oratorio in twenty-four days. Later he said, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.” A year after his initial performance in Dublin, at St. Patrick’s and Christ Church, on April 13, 1742, attended by satirist Jonathan Swift, it was performed in London. As its glorious strains of the Hallelujah Chorus moved upon the audience, King George II, was so moved, he sprang to his feet, and remained standing until the chorus ended. It became a custom for audiences, to this day, who stand each time the chorus is performed. A statue of Handel, in his honor, stands in Vauxhall Gardens, in London, commissioned by King George II. He was inhumed in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, a week after his death.
At the end of his manuscript, Handel inscribed the letters, in genuine humility, “SDG,” Solo Deo Gloria, “To God Be the Glory.” That inscription bolstered the belief among theological historians, that Handel was indeed inspired by the Holy Spirit, and his conviction that through Divine inspiration, as he wrote the hallelujah chorus, “he saw all heaven before him.” This accounts for the Biblical references from the Book of Revelation, “Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigns.” (Rev. 19:6.) “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and his Christ; and he shall reign forever and ever.” Rev. 11:15.) Eschatology set to soaring musical splendor.
This three part, sixteen scene masterpiece, commences with Isaiah’s prophecy of Salvation, and concludes with the acclamation of the Messiah, Worthy is the Lamb, and the Amen chorus. Someone aptly concluded, “If one isn’t moved to praise Him, after hearing Messiah, one should take one’s pulse.” Many stand out of duty or obligation. Others for unbridled adoration for magnificent musical composition. However, for the percipient, who understand the clear Biblical underpinnings, celebrate and honor His Birth, realize we’ll one day stand and sing our own version of “Hallelujah” around God Almighty’s throne in Heaven.
Some still gather around on Christmas Eve to read Clement C. Moore’s, 1823, “The Night Before Christmas,” or Luke’s account of the soul stirring Truth, an unparalleled story of God, Incarnate. As the lesser known 1917, “Gesu Bambino,” (The Infant Jesus) choral hymn, by Pietro A. Yon, Italian born organist, majestically proclaims, “From paradise to earth He came, that we with Him might dwell.” Holiday pop may tickle the ears; not the soul. Millions still prefer Christmas standards like “Silent Night” “Come All Ye Faithful,” and “The First Noel.” More contemporary, yet traditional offerings, some prefer Josh Groban’s “Noel.” In their poignant lyrical fashion, they point listeners in the right direction.
To naysayer, scoffer, secularist, or Scrooge, don’t dismiss the significance of Jesus Christ miraculous Birth another season. It’s worse than a lump of coal in your stocking. He left the glory of Heaven, shattering the shackles of sin that we’ve personally forged, fitting us to be ushered into the glory of Heaven one day. Christmas’s a time for new beginnings. Regardless of one’s musical palate, what else can one proclaim but “Hallelujah!”
In 1954, C.S. Lewis wrote a fictional treatise, ”Xmas and Christmas,” characterizing the “Exmas fifty day festival” as “the barbarian winter rush to celebrate a holiday to a god they don’t believe in,” lampooning the pagan islanders from Niatirb (Britain spelled backwards). Worldliness has an ingenious ability to attach itself to what Christians embrace, then subvert and diminish it through commerce. Has Christmas become stale, mundane or irksome? Handel’s “Messiah,” a musical fortress for the beleaguered Christmas shopper, may be a seasonal elixir. Handel had it right! This Season, with reckless abandon, and Joy, wish someone Merry Christmas! What do you think?
Mike Pyatt’s a Natrona County resident. His email’s firstname.lastname@example.org