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World-changing music with a life changing message

A review of Robert Bashford: Focus on Jesus. A guide to the message of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ - by Prof Dr Noël Tredinnick

"Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows..." Familiar words to us, surely, indeed, from Isaiah 53: 4-5. And along with other Old Testament quotes from the Psalms, Malachi, Zechariah and Haggai, and not to forget all the New Testament inclusions from Matthew to Revelation, these Biblical references are indelibly etched into our music-loving consciences because of the collaboration of two 18th century gentlemen who, together, changed the world - for Christ, the Messiah.

But equally surely, the Leicestershire landowner, Charles Jennens (1700 - 1773) is, for certain, one of history's 'unsung-heroes'. His may not be a household name: yet without his influence and tenacity, his energy and tact, his powers of persuasion, his social connections and his literary and Biblical knowledge, the world's most important and famous piece of music, the ever-popular and monumental choral piece, Handel's ''Messiah'', would never have been written as it was. Certainly, it would not have achieved its focus and iconic status without the close-at-hand partnership that the composer shared with trusted friend, Charles Jennens. This Oratorio is a legend that dreams are made of - and about which books are written.

The latest of these is Robert Bashford's enjoyable and scholarly Guide to the Message of Handel's 'Messiah'. His is an easy book to read and an important one to incentivise our study and appreciation of the range and, of course, the meaning and relevance, of the passages of Scripture that Jennens selected and put in the hands of the composer. Handel, during his lifetime, was the most celebrated musician in western Europe and the doyen and much-feted composer resident in England, ever since his arrival in the early 1720s. Unquestionably, ''Messiah'' is his most enduring work, and Robert Bashford clearly shows us Jennen's importance. Without his seasoned and informed input and inspiration, Handel would never have produced the most memorable music ever written, nor as a German speaker, been drawn to such a logical and comprehensive range of core Biblical texts in the English language.

Helpfully, this Guide to the Message also has equally excellent descriptions of the music language and construction, the nuances, the imitations, the instrumentation, the word setting (some times a problem), the key relationships and moods, the solo writing: so many insights, the text is bubbling with practical information. As well as being a Music book, this Guide is also a History book with research and background allowing historic figures and performances to come clearly alive in our imaginations. As the author intends, someone who sings this work as soloist or chorister will be enlightened beyond measure and will see this music in a practically informed new light as a result of reading this book.

Finally, a good deal of impressive spiritual teaching and guidance are powerfully conveyed in this book. I was profoundly moved by the depth of insights, all so well expressed - and I'm a seasoned Handelian! Also, the author seeks out just what was in Jennens' heart and intention in selecting these particular Bible passages, the ones eventually included. Obviously, with hindsight, we refer to these well-loved scripture passages as "very popular" texts, well-attested, now in our own day: but they are well known and well-loved by us, precisely because these are the very passages that Jennens and Handel chose to include as their texts to be set in this Oratorio. These are their chosen words that we, and countless others, have sung over and over.

Robert Bashford makes this point: that it is in singing these beautiful movements that, truly, we come to effectively memorise and internalise these special, anointed, Bible passages (and love and appreciate them) deeply, like no other. The author highlights the structure of the Oratorio and draws a strong significance from its form. Helpfully, he points to the central aspects that make up its structure: prophecy, the incarnation, the cross, forgiveness, the resurrection, the Second Coming, and the Book of Revelation - all authenticate the true 'Messiah' in His glory and rule; with the Hallelujah Chorus (not a finale, but) strategically bridging the death and resurrection of Jesus for all time as it does. This is so helpfully conveyed, even underlined.

What a fresh and lively book is this. The author's experience and affection are bubbling out of every page; so is the serious balancing act, he's undertaken here: which is to emphasise, explain and spotlight both the beautiful, world-changing, music; yet equally he is emphasising and lifting high the Word (made flesh), the Biblical text, as preeminent: the Word who witnesses to the glorious, world-saving, Lord and Messiah.

This lovely book is fully and enthusiastically enjoyed and endorsed by me - certainly most strongly commended to anyone, everyone. Surely!!


Prof Dr N H Tredinnick is Professor of Conducting and Academic Studies at the GSMD; recently retired Organist and Director of Music at All Souls Church, Langham Place; accomplished and popular composer, writer, broadcaster and lecturer.



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