8 Dec 2015

Advent Reflections 2015 - Reflecting on Advent with Handel's "Messiah"

Messiah is an English-language oratorio composed in 1741 by George Frideric Handel, with a scriptural text compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible, and from the version of the Psalms included with the Book of Common Prayer. It was first performed in Dublin on 13 April 1742 and received its London premiere nearly a year later. After an initially modest public reception, the oratorio gained in popularity, eventually becoming one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music.

Although its structure resembles that of opera, it is not in dramatic form; there are no impersonations of characters and no direct speech. Instead, Jennens's text is an extended reflection on Jesus Christ as Messiah. After the rather general introduction, Scene 3 addresses Isaiah's specific prophecy about the virgin birth of a Messiah by expanding more verses from different chapters of the prophet.

From the perspective of reflection during Advent, these masterpieces provide some beautiful settings of Isaiah's prophecies for meditation.


Behold, a virgin shall conceive
"Behold, a virgin shall conceive" (Isaiah 7:14) is rendered in a short alto recitative, to be "called Emmanuel", translated to "God – with us", sung with a rest after "God". This very prophecy is quoted in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 1:23).

O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion
As if the good news was spreading, the solo alto begins "O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion" (Isaiah 40:9), and is taken over by the chorus.

The people that walked in darkness
Although the text "The people that walked in darkness" is taken from a different chapter of Isaiah (Isaiah 9:2), Handel treats the aria as a continuation of the accompagnato by similar motifs.

For unto us a Child is born
The choir concludes the scene, telling the news of Christmas, the birth of a son, "For unto us a Child is born", in Isaiah's words (Isaiah 9:6).

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