Tuesday, December 17, 2013

How to Listen to Handel’s “Messiah”

A large group from our church will be attending the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Mendelsohn Choir’s presentation of Messiah this week. For many this will be their first time and I thought I might provide a little coaching on how to get the most out of it.

The first thing you need to realize is that classical music is not bad. George Frideric Handel died in 1759 after a long and productive life of writing operas, oratorios and the like at the height of the Baroque period. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry. All you really need to know is that he composed very beautiful, logical music. Listen carefully to how it progresses. In Messiah, it is aimed to closely match the meaning of the words. Happy thoughts come with happy music. Sober ideas get sober music. That kind of thing.

The second thing to note is that every word in Messiah comes from the Bible. Most often, this is done by directly quoting a Biblical text, but sometimes a phrase from another text is added to help complete the thought.

David said,

            I will meditate on your precepts
                        and fix my eyes on your ways.
            I will delight in your statutes;
                        I will not forget your word.
(Psalm 119:15-16 ESV)

Now you have the key to Handel’s Messiah!

The way to meditate on the Word of God is to take a verse or two and think on them for a period of time. You may, for example, read the verse out loud putting the emphasis on a different word each time. Or you may just read it over and over again carefully ruminating on each word. There are many ways to meditate.

Handel’s Messiah is a beautiful way to ponder the Word of God concerning Jesus. Handel takes us from the early prophecies of Christ, through the Scriptures concerning His birth, then on to his death, resurrection and the Final Judgment. In what may be, in my opinion, the most lovely section of the piece, he ends with the chorus of the angels in heaven from Revelation 5: “"Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power – and riches, – and wisdom, – and strength, – and honour, – and glory, – and blessing. Amen."  The “Amen” alone is worth the price of admission!

So, come to Messiah ready to worship. You will be blessed with a couple of hours of thoughtful, indeed beautiful, meditation on the Christ. Let yourself enjoy the musical arrangements. Listen for ways Handel was attempting to communicate via the music what he understood as the intention of the verses. And by all means, do not talk during the performance. (Okay, I had to get that in. People have forgotten how to attend concerts these days, whether at my kids’ schools or Roy Thompson Hall. Sit quietly, never even whisper except through applause breaks, and don’t stand up until the Hallelujah chorus.)

May God use your attendance and mediation and delight in Him and His ways to prepare your heart to worship Him with passion and joy Christmas Day.

P.S.  This is a paid concert. If you are late, you will not be shown to your seat until pre-scheduled breaks in the music. Depending on how late you are, that can be a long way into the performance. So, love your fellow concert-goers and arrive downtown early. There is lots to see in the lobby if you have extra time.