Friday, December 23, 2011

Handel's Messiah: A (very amateur) Listening Guide

A week before Thanksgiving, my husband and I had a rare free evening. He was working on a computer project in the office and decided to listen to Handel's Messiah as he worked. I had planned to do the dishes and then play a game or do some reading, but when I heard the familiar opening chords, I sat down and listened, too.

I've always liked the Messiah, but it's usually playing in the background while I clean, write, or drive. The last time I actually sat down to listen to the entire piece was about 5 or 6 years ago, when the ladies from my Sunday School class all went to a live performance at the National Cathedral. The company was enjoyable that night, but the venue was so drafty that the instruments had to stop several times to retune, including right before the Hallelujah Chorus and. I'm not sure which would have been worse: allowing the instruments to play the pieces out of tune (and potentially confusing the chorus), or interrupting the flow of the piece. In any case, the choppy performance was highly distracting.

So this time, as I listened with my full attention, I noticed several interesting things about the piece that I hadn't before. I'm not sure how many of them were intentional on Handel's part, how many of them were the result of the conductor's interpretation (for reference, the version we have is the Neville Mariner/Academy of St. Martin in the Fields performance of the original 1748 score), and how many are simply the result of the soloists' diction. But I heard a number of "musical jokes" or references, and I therefore offer this amateur listening guide. I won't claim any profound level of insight into the piece, but I am curious if others hear the same things I do, or if there are other references I have missed along the way.

"Comfort Ye My People:" the first time the soloist sings the word "iniquity," the chord structure of the music changes as if to convey the dissonance of sin itself.

"The People That Walked in Darkness:" this piece starts off with heavy, almost plodding, chords, and "lightens" as the light "dawns" on the people ("have seen a great light").

"Glory to God:" the string technique used here (I'm not a string player and so don't know the technical name) gives the impression of the fluttering of the wings of the angel chorus. Steve pointed out that the contrasting quiet of "and peace on earth" in the men's sections could be the echo off the hills.

"His Yoke Is Easy:" compare the lightness of this piece to the heaviness of "The People That Walked in Darkness."

"All We Like Sheep:" there's a lot of "turning" in the music itself in this piece.

"He Trusted in God:" one of my favorites. I can just imagine this refrain spreading through the crowd watching the crucifixion. It has the feel of gossip spreading through a large group of people.

"Thou Shalt Break Them:" the soloist in this version sings "thou shalt dash them into pieces" in such a way that you can picture something being thrown violently toward the ground.

And finally, note the difference in harmonics between "Behold the Lamb of God" and the final piece, "Worthy Is the Lamb." The former quotes the announcement of John the Baptist in John 1:29 ("Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of world!") and is in a mournful minor key, as if to foreshadow the crucifixion for which the Messiah came into the world. The latter quotes Revelation 4:11 and is in a joyous major key, as if to celebrate the work accomplished by the Messiah who now sits at the Father's side in heaven and reigns as Lord of all.

Happy listening, and Happy Christmas!