Monday, 10 December 2012

‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people’

Fishamble Street, near Christ Church Cathedral … Handel’s Messiah was first performed here in 1742 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Opening music:

‘For unto us a child is born’ from GF Handel, Messiah

Reading: Isaiah 40: 1-11.

My choice of music for the opening of our reflection this afternoon is one of the best known arias from Handel’s Messiah, second only in popularity to the ‘Hallelujah Chorus.’

But the reading I have chosen (Isaiah 40: 1-11) is not just because the candle we light on the Advent Wreath this week is to remind us of the Prophets, especially Isaiah, but because this too is the reading in the weekday lectionary of the Church of Ireland for Evening Prayer this evening. It was quoted in our Gospel reading yesterday morning (Sunday 9 December 2012, Luke 3: 1-6). It also inspired the opening words of Handel’s Messiah:

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.
(Isaiah 40: 1-3)

I cannot count how many times in recent weeks I have heard snippets from the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ on the radio, in supermarkets and in shopping centres. I hear people humming along to the airs of this well-known and well-loved piece. But how many shoppers know the words they are humming as they push around their shopping trolleys come from Isaiah or, in the case of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus,’ are selective and jumbled excerpts from Revelation 11 and 19 (Revelation 19: 6, then Revelation 11: 15, and then Revelation 19: 16)?

Yet, so many people are familiar with the Christmas story, and with the words of Isaiah, not from reading Scripture, but because they are so familiar with Handel’s Messiah.

More often than not, the oratorio is known as The Messiah rather than Messiah, the simple name Handel gave it. Indeed, it was originally titled A Sacred Oratorio. But then, Dublin people are good at jumbling the name of so many things.

For example, there is a memorable scene in the movie Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970), where Quackser, played by Gene Wilder, misappropriates some information he has received from Zazel (Margot Kidder), an American studying at Trinity, and tells a group of tourists as they pass Saint Michan’s Church that Messiah’s Handel was first performed there.

Of course, the organ on which Handel is said to have composed Messiah is in Saint Michan’s Church. But Handel’s Messiah was first performed in the Fishamble Street Musick Hall, beside Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on 13 April 1742.

Saint Michan’s Church, Church Street, Dublin … Handel is said to have composed ‘Messiah’ on the organ in the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Holy Week and Easter seem to us now to be an inappropriate season for Messiah. Yet, although it is associated traditionally with Advent and Christmas, Handel’s original hope was that Messiah would be performed in Lent and Easter.

We also think of both the music and words as Handel’s own work, forgetting that the libretto is a compilation by Charles Jennens (1700-1773), who first suggested writing Messiah when he wrote to Handel, setting out how that he wanted to create a Scriptural anthology set to music.

Jennens was a literary scholar from Baliol College, Oxford, who was known already for his edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Before Messiah, he had collaborated with Handel on Saul and Belshazzar. Handel composed the entire music for Messiah in only 24 days. A planned London debut in Holy Week 1741 never materialised and so Handel’s Messiah was heard for the first time in Dublin.

Jennens chose the texts for Messiah and used them selectively. A large portion of the libretto is from the Old Testament, particularly the Book of Isaiah, but there are New Testament texts too, including passages from three Gospels (Saint Matthew, Saint Luke and Saint John), as well as passages from I Corinthians, Hebrews and the Book of Revelation. In all, he quotes from 13 books of the Bible, although he deviates from the King James Version when it comes to the Psalms, quoting instead from the Psalter in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

Long before Windows, this might have been an early example of “copy and paste”!

Because so many of us hear or have heard those texts in their relationship to one another in Messaih, it has often determined how they – our society, our culture – perceive and receive Isaiah.

Isaiah provides more of the quoted verses in Messiah than any other book of the Bible in Messiah. Yet, who ever asks which parts of Isaiah could Jennens have used but did not? And why? There are some intriguing omissions, probably because of Jennens’ views on atonement theology.

What are Jennens and Handel saying about salvation, as opposed to what are they saying about the incarnation, is a question we are unlikely to wrestle with because we now associate Messiah with Advent and Christmas rather that with Holy Week and Easter.

It has been said at times that Jennens mistranslated, misappropriated and rearranged the texts. And this could give rise, potentially, to many textual debates. For example, what has been the influence and impact over the years of the use of the word “virgin” from Isaiah 7:14, where Jennens and the KJV rely on the Greek Septuagint rather than using the “young woman” in the Hebrew text? But then, of course, Jennens was using the King James Version of the Bible, and not the New Revised Standard Version.

Or how about Job, who is quoted in the aria ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ (Job 19: 25)? These words have become so ingrained in us culturally that they decorate many chancel arches in churches up and down the land. Yet, what was Job talking about here?

Others critics say Jennens and Messiah show contempt for Jews and Judaism. Others still point out that there are sections of the libretto that are obscure.

Nevertheless, Handel’s Messiah offers real potential for devotional or Bible studies in small groups or in parish settings, where so many people, even if they have never sung Messiah, are used to listening to it at this time of the year with a combination of affection and faith.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral. This reflection was shared at a faculty meeting on 10 December 2012.

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