With the onset of Advent, Christmas traditions abound, but for me, the consummate event is a Messiah Sing-in with its famed “Hallelujah” chorus. Because Handel’s Messiah and Isaiah are close companions, on this first day of Advent your SearchIsaiah team, is taking a deeper look at Isaiah’s influence on this remarkable work.
However, the oratorio was not really intended for Christmas as Emily C. Hoyler wrote in a University of Chicago Divinity School publication. “Every December, major orchestras and choirs across the United States and Europe stage performances of Messiah. It is a work so strongly tied to Christmas that many are unaware that it was originally intended for performance during the Easter season.” She continues: “To the present day, orchestrated Messiah “sing-alongs” draw large crowds of non-professional singers, particularly in American and British communities. … Messiah has never needed a revival; it has been performed continually since its premiere in various arrangements and contexts all over the world but has found an enduring place in Christmas repertoire.”
In each full performance of the Messiah, more than 20 verses from Isaiah are sung, making it the most common source for Handel‘s masterpiece, but Handel had help in selecting the words for his famous libretto from Charles Jennens (1700–1773). Jennens was an English aristocrat who had worked with Handel (1685–1759) on several other oratorios. He shared his compilation of 81 verses from the Holy Bible. Taken from 14 different books including the 21 verses from Isaiah. Jennens organized the verses into three parts:
- The prophecy of the birth of a Messiah and the Incarnation
- The Passion and the Resurrection
- Christ’s glorification in Heaven.
Many of Isaiah’s verses appear in part one, which makes it compelling to use at Christmas time. Here are the verses from Isaiah in the oratorio:
|40: 1-3||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.
|40: 4||Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry moutain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.|
|7: 14||Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Emmanuel, God with us.|
O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain. O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, behold your God!
Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.
|60: 2-3|| For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee.
And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.
|9: 2|| The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light;
and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined
|9: 6||For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.|
|35: 5-6||Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.
|40: 11||He shall feed His flock like a shepherd; and He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young|
|50: 3||He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.|
|53: 6||He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off His hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting.
He was despised
|53: 4-5||Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows!
He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him.
|53: 5||And with His stripes we are healed.|
|53: 6||All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way. And the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.|
|53: 8||He was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgressions of Thy people was He stricken|
|52:7||How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things.|
(Part 3 does not include any verses from Isaiah.)
As I read these words, I find myself humming along and tapping my feet; I guess I knew a lot more of Isaiah by heart than I knew I did, how about you?
- A Guide to the Original Source Texts for Handel’s Messiah Libretto, compiled by Martin P. Dicke
- Liberto, Georg Friedrich Händel, MESSIAH (1742), A Sacred Oratorio, words by Charles Jennens