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Beautiful theology

BACKSTORY | What Handel taught the world about Jesus

The Handel monument in front of Market Church in Halle, Germany. Stephan Schulz/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP

Beautiful theology
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Caleb Bailey spent a good portion of his childhood sitting on a piano bench, training his fingers to play pieces by Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Gershwin. He never cared much for Baroque music until he heard Handel’s Messiah for the first time. Caleb’s story, “Handel’s triumph,” in this issue, explains how the piece became a Christmas classic, even though the famous composer wrote the music for Easter. That’s also when Caleb heard it for the first time.

What do you remember about that first, live performance? I’ve never heard the complete piece live, but I was 17 when I heard the “Hallelujah” chorus performed by the Master’s University Collegiate Singers at Forest Lawn in Southern California. By then, I’d tired of the classical shtick—dressing up to sit still for two hours and barely keep my eyes open. But when the group of singers belted “Hallelujah” in harmony, I was entranced. In fact, it took me a few seconds to realize everyone but me was standing. There was something about the four-part melody that worked so well with the text. Heavenly.

Messiah’s libretto is deeply theological. But so is the music. How did Handel incorporate theology into the score? I think Charles Jennens is the unsung hero. That libretto is rich. Which meant the music also needed to be rich. The words inspired the notes.

Dr. Paul Plew is the former dean of the School of Music at Master’s, and he conducted that “Hallelujah” performance I attended. When I called him a couple of months ago, he pointed out some of Handel’s masterful compositions that matched the text. Keys had meanings in the Baroque period. The key of D Major symbolized victory. The “Hallelujah” chorus was written in D. “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” comes before the “Pastoral Symphony,” which is all instruments, no voices. Plew compares the placement of the symphony to a Selah in the Psalms. It encourages reflection on the previous lyrics. Wonderful Counselor. Prince of Peace. And it’s as if Handel said, Let me give you a second to digest that.

What’s one thing you learned about music while reporting this story that 11 years of piano lessons didn’t teach you? I realized the plight of musicians was no different 300 years ago. They were still paying bills on a piece-by-piece basis. I was shocked reading about Handel’s lowly status when he wrote Messiah. It also makes the piece a true triumph—rags to riches, so to speak. And at the end of the day those riches became gifts to the sick and abandoned. I think that’s because Handel understood the free gift of grace Messiah heralded.

Leigh Jones

Leigh is features editor for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate who spent six years as a newspaper reporter in Texas before joining WORLD News Group. Leigh also co-wrote Infinite Monster: Courage, Hope, and Resurrection in the Face of One of America's Largest Hurricanes. She resides with her husband and daughter in Houston, Texas.


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