What this means, of course, is that I sat my slender butt on a church bench (St. Luke’s in Evanston) to torture myself through Handel’s Messiah for about two hours on Sunday and, quite mysteriously, found myself shifted into a wondrous piece of music — not tortured at all — packed full of messages for…wait for it!
Well, first, the performance. I don’t often write reviews. but the BellaVoce rendition under the phenomenal direction of Andrew Lewis was absolutely transporting. It carried you way past the point of irritation at the way composers of Handel’s era repeated just about everything a bunch of times, I suppose, to make sure you got the point!
“Come unto him, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and He shall give you rest.” That is from Matthew, and it takes a handful of repetitions just to get it across. But it certainly does come across quite admirably.
The whole piece, and it is quite a huge piece, is built around a compelling collection of excerpts of various psalms. Being the kind of person who is just not satisfied with what is right in front of him — in this case the glory of the music — I read along in the psalm parts and had some very contemporary thoughts about a piece that was written, the scholar Harris S. Saunders, Jr. noted in a strong summary of what it was all about,, between late August and mid September of 1741. How in God’s name (literally) did Handel do that? I don’t know. It’s some kind of a miracle.
Ever since my seminary days, I have always loved psalms, like praying through poetry. But this time, my reaction was different.
“Why Do the nation’s so furiously rage together? And why do the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord, and against his annointed.”
And then, a warning: “He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn; the Lord shall have them in derision…Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
You could look all of this up in the book of psalms, but I doubt it would have the same effect without the music. For me, I came to realize that the Russian assault on Ukraine is more than a violation of international law, more than a rolling abomination. It is a grevious sin, the kind of the The Lord would be hard pressed to forgive.
O course when you get to the Hallelujah part of the performance, everyone stands and takes it all in. I can’t imagine much of anyone who would not recognize the music and words. “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 King. Lord of Lords, Hallelujah!”
Ironically perhaps, people begin to ramble out after that part. It’s like walking out of a fabulous feast just after the meat course is served. But sore butts on the hard oak of a church pew can only take so much.
And that is a pity.
It remains great, all the way to scene four: “The Glorification of the Messianic Victim.”
“Worthy is the lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood to receive power, and riches, and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing…”
That is what I wish in this coming Christmas season for the people of Ukraine, and peace.