A gem of a volume
A review of Robert Bashford's 'Focus on Jesus. A Guide to the Message of Handel’s Messiah', Latimer 2020
This is quite a gem of a volume. In one sense, it cannot fail to appeal to Christians: there is plenty of explanation of the Scriptures and description of the music of one of Handel’s best-known choral works.
As a definite non-musician, may I comment on the musical analysis first, and quite briefly. The musical structures, keys and the use of different voices are described in separately highlighted boxes, which allow those who are more concerned with the text to pass them by with relative ease. That is not to say that the non-musician will find nothing within those sections. The evaluation of where Handel chooses to deploy different musical tactics in support of the message is very useful.
But to the libretto. Bashford’s analysis and description of ‘Messiah’ reflect broad reading and study of the text. He takes the work scene by scene, explaining the thread running through the selection of verses and also touching on the reasons for omitting certain verses or parts of them. For example, Bashford looks in some depth at possible reasons for leaving out verse 12 of Luke 2 in Scene 4.
The author also identifies and explains some of the themes which run through the whole work. Men and women are seen as sheep for whom the Messiah cares, but yet sheep who have gone astray. Alongside this, Jesus the Messiah is seen as the shepherd and the Lamb who was slain to take away the sin of the world. He helps to give us something of a holistic overview of this pastoral metaphor.
Bashford does not consider Messiah on its own. He illustrates Handel and Jennens’ work drawing on the experiences of people such as Charles Simeon, Martin Luther and Hudson Taylor. Illustrations are provided from the writing of C S Lewis in the events in Narnia; John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is quoted, alongside multiple hymns and other choral works such as Stanier’s Crucifixion. This gives a richness to the book which allows a form of context to be created: Messiah is set in a broader landscape of musical and literary activity.
I would have appreciated more detail on Charles Jennens, who worked with Handel on other works and helped with the financing of their publication. He was obviously firmly grounded in Scripture and in the Book of Common Prayer and it was frustrating to find rather little of Jennens’ personality and background informing this narrative.
This book leaves one in awe again of the work of God in salvation, of Jesus the Messiah, and our need of forgiveness. I was struck again by the richness of the biblical narrative, especially in Isaiah. Bashford displays huge breadth of reading and understanding, even if at times the main thread becomes somewhat obscured in the writing for the average reader.
The book is thorough in explanation, but assumes a fair amount of doctrinal foundation, so this makes the volume more one for the well taught Christian. The musician, on the other hand, may be looking for more technical detail. Nevertheless, if your church is hosting a performance of the Messiah, then this book would provide excellent background material for an evangelistic talk alongside it, or for an article in the programme. One way or another, this is a great resource to have on the bookshelf.