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Words illuminated by Music

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

A review by Andrew Kirk of Focus on Jesus. A Guide to the message of Handel's 'Messiah'

In a discussion on how truth may be established, I suggested that “the nature of truth becomes more complicated when we move from statements about events in the world to statements about aesthetic judgements, moral values and religious beliefs.” As an example of an 'aesthetic truth', I used the 'Hallelujah Chorus' as an illustration of the most stirring piece of music ever composed. It is, probably, the most famous piece of Handel's oratorio, the 'Messiah'. I need to clarify that my assertion is not, after all, a truth, but an opinion. Nevertheless, it may not be an exaggeration to say that this oratorio is the most famous one ever composed and the one most performed.

Bashford has written an intriguing commentary on both the text used by Handel and the way in which the music illuminates the words. In his Introduction, he states that the various objectives of the book: “to examine the oratorio's portrayal of Jesus”; explain the meaning of the word, Messiah; speak about Handel the composer and Charles Jennens, who selected the texts, and define the oratorio as “a concert setting of a religious theme of a dramatic nature”. As a drama, the oratorio is divided into three acts (parts), each with a number of scenes, within which there are different movements - musical pieces for instruments, recitatives, airs and choruses. Bashford uses Jennens's original sections as the basis for his observations, but replaces the latter's titles with his own.

The main body of the book, then, is a running commentary on the biblical texts compiled by Jennens. Bashford dwells on the background and meaning of every text used for every scene throughout the score. This encompasses the bulk of the book and thus fulfils its main purpose to focus on the significance of the life and ministry of Jesus, the Messiah - his teaching and work of salvation. He considers the possible reasons why Jennens leaves out texts in the middle of a passage: for example the reference to the manger in Jesus' birth narrative (Luke 2:12); the humility of Jesus in riding on a donkey in the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (Zechariah 9:9c), and two of the rhetorical questions that Paul poses (Romans 8:32 and 35). He also reflects on possible explanations for Jennens having changed some of the texts from the AV and his use of the Book of Common Prayer's version of some of the Psalms.

I found many of the author's comments on the Biblical texts helpful, (he often compares the original translation with a contemporary one (the English Standard Version), particularly his discussion of the relation between Jesus' healing ministry and his bearing of judgement on sin, and the passages on death (I Corinthians 15 and Romans 8) in Part III, Scene 3. He also refers to a number of non-Biblical texts to illustrate his comments, showing a particular liking for C.S. Lewis (quoting from The Narnia Stories, Miracles, Mere Christianity, and The Pilgrim's Regress).

Another feature of the book are the annotations on the musical score that come at the end of the comments on each scene. Bashford shows how Handel uses a variety of musical expressions to convey the depth of meaning and significance of the Biblical text. One example of his settings is the use of trumpets. On the whole they are used sparingly, but to great effect: for example in the chorus, “Glory to God in the Highest” (Part I, Scene 4); the 'Hallelujah' chorus (Part III, Scene 2), and the oratorio's final piece, the chorus, “Worthy is the Lamb”.(Part III, Scene 4). For those, like me, not familiar with some of the musical terms, he includes a full glossary of musical terms in an Appendix.

Finally, he mentions and explains one or two surprises concerning both the text and the musical score. Why did Jennens appeal overwhelmingly to Old Testament texts? Why did Paul in Romans 10:18 transpose the quotation from Psalm 19:4 from creation to the new creation? Why does the Hallelujah chorus not conclude the whole oratorio, as many think it does or should?

The conclusion of this fascinating guide to the message of Handel's Messiah invites the reader to respond not just to the music, which is sublime, but to the message. He makes an appeal to the reader to consider their standing before God, and to see in the Father's sending of the Son, to atone for the sins of the whole world, the only possibility of forgiveness, reconciliation and new life in God's kingdom. I recommend this book as a perceptive handbook to the world's most renowned oratorio with its explicit evangelistic intent.


Revd. Andrew Kirk is a retired Anglican minister. He has been involved on a part-time basis with graduate institutes in Eastern and Western Europe, the United Kingdom, and Canada, both teaching and supervising doctoral students. He has degrees in theology (missiology) from the Universities of London, Cambridge, and Nijmegen. He was a founder/member of the Latin American Theological Fraternity (1970), associate director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (1982-1990), theologian missioner of the Church Mission Society (1982-1990), dean and head of the Department of Mission, Selly Oak Colleges (1990-1999), and senior lecturer for the Department of Theology, University of Birmingham (1999-2002).



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