Thursday, January 01, 2009

Handel: Scripture is a symphony

I was reading today that Handel's Messiah is now banned from public performances in China (h/t Ancient Hebrew Poetry), along with other sacred music. Apparently Messiah had been performed in China before, and was very well received. Handel's music is amazing -- and I'm not just saying that because he was Lutheran. (Beethoven considered Handel the greatest composer of all time -- which is no small compliment considering Beethoven is also a serious contender for the title of greatest composer of all time.)

The reason I bring up Handel is because I think he was, like J.S. Bach, primarily a theologian, and one who understood Scripture better than most of the systematic theologians. He did understand the basics of liturgy: that Scripture is not just for analyzing, but for praying and for singing. A musician and a poet notices things that an analyst does not: that the Psalms were originally for singing and are still best appreciated when sung, that the prophecies were originally announcements and are still best understood when proclaimed, that the imagery and symbolism of Scripture is more similar to a fugue with deep, hidden themes than it is to a textbook. And then there is that section of the book of Revelation where Handel noticed that it was an endless chorus of different voices exclaiming, "Hallelujah!" (I would rate Messiah's grand finale piece as the best Bible study ever written on the book of Revelation, and every other study of Revelation as merely preparatory to enable people to appreciate and participate in that grand finale.)

Handel knew that, rightly understood, Scripture does not cause only analysis but ultimately it causes celebration. Rightly preached, the Word of God does not cause people to dedicate themselves to analyzing the Scriptures, but to go out into the world celebrating the glory of God. Handel the theologian did not write traditional Bible studies or traditional systematic theologies; he wrote symphonies -- not on the view that they were lower than analysis, but on the view that praise is the ultimate fruit of understanding what God has done.


PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

I attended a college where the Messiah was done every year as a mass choir. I was talked into participating, and I'm sure glad. I find that the words and music trigger more than just memories of that performance, they trigger deep moments of faith.

Weekend Fisher said...

We (our choir) sang "For unto us" Christmas morning. Beautiful stuff.

Tony-Allen said...

When in I was younger I used to hate spiritual music, but I was only familiar with the really poorly done music one hears in most modernized Catholic services, where the singing is half-hearted and the congregation doesn't seem to care about joining. After seeing The Greatest Story Ever Told in middle school I was introduced to Handel (excerpts of his Messiah are scattered throughout the film) and found a renewed interest in real spiritual music, which seeks after theology and faith for all the reasons you outlined.

Gary said...

Handel's Messiah is a fantastic proclamation of Scripture, which has been a great way to remember key passages for me. A while back I would spend an evening listening and singing along - a great night in the Bible!

Pity it has been banned now.

I hope we get to sing the Hallelujah chorus in glory - or will the new songs be even sweeter?

Weekend Fisher said...

I have an idea that God will let us start with all of our best that we have already made, before we learn the new songs. I think the best ones were already keepers. I expect it will take a week just to listen to all the things Handel composed ...

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Howard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Howard said...

This has to be one of the best (inspiring) blog entires I've read in ages!
The insight into Handel's work here is masterful, and resonates deeply.

As a Christian and an artist, I totally agree, and I have found his work to convey the 'glory' (weight) of our faith in a manner we often miss when employing supposedly 'good' techniques.

Personally, "I know that my redeemer liveth" is a profound composition and confession, which was played at my wife's funeral a few years ago, and I hope will be used at my own.

Thank you for this excellent insight.

Howard said...

Dear Blogmaster,
I would very much like to use aspects of this piece as the basis of an item/discussion on my own blog - would this be OK?