In July of 1741, librettist Charles Jennens laid out the biblical texts that Handel would soon set as the oratorio Messiah. In eager anticipation of Handel’s impending masterwork, Jennens wrote to a friend, “I hope he will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other Subject.” How prophetic and true in every sense!
The first words of Handel’s Messiah are drawn from Isaiah 40:1-4:
“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.”
I will take the risk of expressing to you my most personal feelings that well up when I experience the extraordinary recitative and aria that Handel composed to communicate this monumental biblical prophecy to his first Dublin audience. It brings me back to a very specific moment during my teen years (the 1970’s) in New York City: insecure as so many teenagers are; living in an urban environment riddled with crime and poverty; treading the streets and subways with caution; and stressed by a busy schedule of academics, sports, and music. Americans were still feeling stung by the aftermath of Watergate and the inauspicious close to the Vietnam War. There was continuing racial tension in the city. Then, that moment. As a ninth grader, I experienced a live performance of the first part of Handel’s Messiah at Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn Heights, NY. (I was singing in the chorus.) During the concert, the very first vocal utterances came from the renowned tenor, Grayson Hirst: “Comfort ye my people . . . .” You can hardly imagine the sense of peace, hope, and comfort that this music implanted in my soul – it dissolved the troubled times. It changed everything.
Part the First of Handel’s Messiah can be your agent of change, too. As Jennens wrote,“It’s Subject excels every other Subject.” Let’s make Handel’s Messiah our Messiah.