The Meaning of Handel’s Messiah: A Conversation with Calvin Stapert

Interview with Professor Calvin Stapert

December 6, 2010

(This is a rush transcript.  This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated)

This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them.  I’m Albert Mohler, your host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Mohler: About this time of year Americans find their ears to familiar music.  And for American Christians as well as many others, much of that music is associated with one single composer and one great work.  That great work is the oratorio Messiah.  The composer is George Frideric Handel and that music has found its way into our hearts, our minds, and even the way we hear the scriptures.  The particulars of this oratorio are fascinating.  The biography of the composer in so far as it can be known to us is itself very interesting.  The story of how this oratorio came to be is a real story unto itself.  And how we hear the Messiah now, well, that continues the story.

Calvin Stapert has taught since 1969 at Calvin College where he has been professor of music, the chairman of the music department, and now professor emeritus of music.  He is also the author of several books including the recently released work Handel’s Messiah:  Comfort for God’s People. Professor Stapert welcome to Thinking in Public.

Stapert: Thank you.  Glad to be here.

Mohler: Professor Stapert your work really places Handel in an historical context.  You know he was born at a very interesting time.  The same year that Johann Sebastian Bach was born and so this was a time in which there is a great deal of obviously musical talent.

Stapert: Yes, certainly.  Not only Bach and Handel but the great keyboard composer Scarlatti was born in the same year.  Of course a half of generation or so later Hayden is coming down the road so there is an enormous amount of musical talent.

Mohler: Yeah I think what many people in our generation tend to think is of these classical musicians as something of miracles in their own right.  You know, the Mozarts and the Bachs as persons who stood out in their own times.  And certainly they did but this is an environment in which there is so much, really, wonderful music being written and this is indeed the music that is the common musical parlance of the day.

Stapert: Yes.  And the whole notion of them being something special, the idea of a genius, something apart from normal people, is really a concept that wasn’t afloat at that time.  They were craftsmen, they were skilled at what they did and what these composers did better than anyone else was write music.  And it often came by way of their families as it did in Bach but not always.  Handel’s musical, his family was not particularly musical.  But with study, and training, and practice they developed their God given skills and became exceptional.

Mohler: When most of us think of Handel we think of course of Messiah and his other oratorios.  I really appreciate how in your book you define what the oratorio is and how it came about.   Would you tell us that story?

Stapert: Sure.  Oratorio you might say is the counterpart to opera.  Opera of course is stage drama which is entirely set to music.  Oratorio is also a dramatic story set to music but not staged and not costumes, and sets and that whole thing.  And oratorios developed alongside opera as I say sort of as its sacred counterpart.  It developed first in Italy.  It spread to Germany it did not spread to England where Handel was working.  It was really Handel’s invention you might say to write English oratorio.

Mohler: Well, when he wrote this new genre of English oratorio he really largely re-defined music as it was understood in its context there in England.  One of the things you point out in your book is that without embarrassment these composers and those who sponsored them considered their work entertainment.

Stapert: Yes that’s true.  You hear it in the descriptions of the writer they refer to this as entertainment.  And that’s part of a long standing theory of art that art had a dual function to delight, or entertain, and to teach.  The two things were not seen as incompatible.  It wasn’t seen as teaching kind of being a tacked on thing you know sort of the moral of the story thing but the two-the teaching and the entertaining or the teaching and the delighting were seen as two sides of the same coin.  You taught in order to delight.  You delighted in order to teach.  And so the oratorio you might say is a preeminent genre of that kind of dual function.  You went to the oratorio the same way you went to the opera.  And operas too were meant to teach.  But in the oratorio, the teaching is done by way of the sacred stories and in particular the stories of the Old Testament which simply by themselves are entertaining enough.  I mean their wonderful, exciting stories of Samson, and David, and deliverance from Egypt, and that sort of thing.

Mohler: Well, you know in your work you mention that in 1742 Handel staged, or saw the performance of his last opera.  And then he turned to oratorio.  Messiah followed three weeks after that operatic performance.  And then after Messiah came fourteen more oratorios over the next ten years.  So Handel made a decisive turn here and the Messiah is kind of a hinge in that turn.

Stapert: Yes, the Messiah really marks his complete break from opera.  He’d been going about a decade as well in fact exactly a decade.  1732 is when he put on his first oratorio that was Esther.  And he wasn’t ready to give up opera.  Opera was failing, crowds were going down, it was failing financially.  But he wasn’t quite ready to give it entirely up at that time.  And so for about a decade he’s trying to keep the opera going but he’s also inserting oratorio now and then.  But as you said in the concert series that he was doing in Dublin in the spring of 1742 one of the concerts he did was a concert version of one of his operas.  That is not staged.  That was the last time he conducted and certainly didn’t write any more operas either after that time.

Mohler: So he makes the turn to the oratorio.

Stapert: And then Messiah followed on its heels and after that it was entirely oratorio.

Mohler: So the oratorio is somewhat opera like but it is not staged.  It also, in the case of Messiah and in the case of Handel, brings something new in and that’s the chorus.  A large choir that is involved here as well.  Now we think of it as, at least I tend to think of it, as a very large choir.  When it ran at the first performance in Dublin it was made up of relatively small choir of men and boys.  But nonetheless the choir seems to be something that is absolutely necessary to Messiah but not something that’s customarily found in opera.

Stapert: That’s correct at least not in Italian opera which was the big thing that was sweeping Europe at the time.  So when he switched from opera to oratorio he first of all had the basic solo genres ready at hand-the recitatives and arias were the solo singers.  But the oratorios called for choruses in quite heavy dose.  So that’s a new element.

Mohler: Well, that’s a part of what added so much to my appreciation of Handel from your work is understanding that here’s a man who really had very little experience in choral composition at all who turns out in a matter of a few weeks Messiah. At least to me that was not only a revelation but I mean incredibly impressive achievement on part of a composer.

Stapert: Yeah. It wasn’t that he was entirely without choral experience before that.  He had written some coronations and anthems.  He had written some anthems for the Duke of Chandos.  And there were some other semi-dramatic English works that he had written.  So he had some choral experience but what he also had going for him was that he just happened to have a natural, fantastic talent for writing for the choir.  It just seems to have been second nature for him.

Mohler: Well, that’s hard to imagine a talent of that prodigious of scale.  But on the other hand even more fascinating to me is the speed with which he wrote these works.   And you mention in your book that when he sat down having been given the libretto, and we’ll talk about that in a moment, to what we know as Messiah, it was in a matter of just a few weeks that he wrote and composed the entire work.

Stapert: Yeah in twenty-four days to be exact.  His autographed score that means his original score on the first page it’s dated what is it, September 21, no wait a minute, August something and then September something on the last page when he finished it.  And that is incredible speed especially to us who are more accustomed to the idea that composers labored long and hard over these masterpieces.  But at the time we’re talking the baroque period of music history the 17th and early 18th century, these composers were very, well they were fast.  And Messiah was maybe a bit faster than normal but it wasn’t really uncharacteristic.  In fact after he finished Messiah he set to work on Samson and in a matter of about a month he had finished Samson as well.  His compositional activity was mainly concentrated in the relatively short period, basically the summer, summer and early fall, between concert seasons.  And so he would do his composing then for the music that he wanted to do in the next season.

Mohler: Now as the Messiah actually came to be, the originating thought did not come from Handel but rather from Charles Jennens who was the man who wrote the librettos.  So, in other words, this man who had a very clear theological agenda as well as a very important cultural agenda, wrote this entire libretto or all the words and text and only then handed it over to Handel whom he chose to write the music.

Stapert: That’s correct.  Jennens was, well, Jennens knew Handel and they had worked together before at least on one oratorio Saul which predates Messiah by two years.  Jennens wrote the libretto for that and he might have written the libretto for Israel and Egypt although we’re not sure of that.  That’s another one that predates Messiah by a short time.  So they knew each other and Jennens was a great fan of Handel’s music.  He thought very highly of Handel and so when he had this really very special libretto of Messiah and we might talk about that in a bit what was so special about it.  He wasn’t going to go to anybody but the best so he sent it to Handel and was eager that Handel would make it his greatest work.  And then the ironic thing is he was expecting Handel to spend about a year on it.  And Handel spent a little more than three weeks on it and when he found that out he was very disappointed.  He thought Handel had given his libretto short…

Mohler: Well, as you point out in your book.  This oratorio has never had to be revised from its release in 1742 until the present.  It has been continuously performed and Charles Jennens it appears had a very misplaced lack of confidence in Handel’s speed in writing and composing this great oratorio.

Stapert: Yeah, yeah.

Mohler: You know one of the interesting aspects of this particular oratorio is that it is most often mis-identified.  It is not in its title “the” Messiah.  It is simply Messiah.  As we come to understand the history of this particular oratorio and how it came to be written we do come to understand that the title gets right to the essence of the thing.  Of the story that is going to be told.  Now as we look at this particular oratorio we come to understand that the story is told in ways that made sense there in the 18th century when it was written but continued to make sense to us today.  The text is the scripture and through this oratorio the text of the scripture takes on a new and very memorable life.

Professor Stapert in your book Handel’s Messiah:  Comfort for God’s People you provide background for this oratorio that really helps us to understand it as we might be for instance at this Christmas and advent season listening to Messiah or perhaps attending a performance of either the entire oratorio or portions of the oratorio.  You point out that Charles Jennens in writing this libretto had a theological agenda and it was written within a particular time of a theological context.  And the great alternative to orthodox Christianity that Charles Jennens had very much in mind as a target in terms of what he was doing with Messiah was deism.

Stapert: Yes.  Deism was spreading fast in Europe including England making inroads into the church.  Deism being that religion which still believes in a god but not in Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world, simply a god who made the world and you might say, left it to its own devices.  And Jennens, as you mentioned, was very concerned about the inroads that deism was making not only in culture in general but into the church as well.  And so this libretto, this collection of scripture texts, has its focus obviously Messiah the second person of the trinity, the one whom had been promised by the prophets for a long time who would come and redeem the world.

Mohler: So libretto, I think it’s important that we stipulate here, that the textual content of this oratorio is really not to be attributed to Handel but to Charles Jennens.  Handel set it to music but Jennens wrote the libretto or the text.  He had done so with deism very much in the background and his effort was an attempt to assert orthodox Christianity in a time of tremendous theological confusion.  And to use the means of the oratorio to bring about this kind of what we might call a defense of the gospel even, in the midst of very uncertain times.  But it’s interesting when we look at the contextual basis from scripture and you point out from your book that one of the things that makes Messiah unique is that, well if not completely unique, almost singularly distinctive in the fact that it is drawn almost entirely from scripture.  And as you look at those scriptural texts it’s amazing how much of it is drawn from the prophet Isaiah.

Stapert: Yes.  The libretto is entirely from the scripture.  There’s not a word that’s Jennens own and it’s mostly Old Testament and Isaiah, the prophecies of Isaiah, just figure very largely in it.  And in this way the Messiah is unique.  And it’s a curious way you might say of telling the story of Jesus work.  His birth, his life, his suffering, his death, his resurrection, and so on done almost entirely through prophecy.  Some have speculated that this had to do with the, well reticence, the in fact forbidding, having Jesus as a real character in a dramatic work.  They would, it would be ok to have someone playing the part of Samson, or of Saul, or of David, or Joshua, but to have someone even if it’s not a stage work, but to have someone be Jesus that just simply wouldn’t go.  So he did that by way of the prophecies and of course to the Christian who has long accepted these prophecies as being of Jesus it’s very clear that the whole thing is about Jesus, the comforter, and shepherd, and so on is always clearly referenced to Jesus.

Mohler: Well it’s so interesting you mention that because theological critiques of this great oratorio point out several things such as the fact that at no point in the oratorio itself is Christ clearly identified as the Messiah, it simply is implied.  And I would argue even made explicit by the story that is told.  And that’s a very interesting critique because when Christians listen to Messiah especially those of us who have been kind of trained by our own church experience to listen to it, we may assume certain things that actually are not in the libretto.  Now one of the things you also point out is that the oratorio was to tell a story.  So if I ask you point blank, what story is Messiah telling, how would you summarize that?

Stapert: It’s a story of salvation.  It’s the story of the rescue of the fallen people from the clutches of Satan, and sin, and death.  And the story begins with the comings of the savior, and it ends around the throne in Revelation with the lamb that was slain being honored by the four beasts, the four and twenty elders, the myriads and myriads of angels and all of creation singing worthy is the lamb.

Mohler: That music is so familiar to us that for many Americans and for others in the English speaking world when we hear certain biblical texts, we almost hear them to the tune of Handel’s Messiah.

Stapert: Yes that’s definitely true.  The music has a way of helping us remember text.  It’s a great pneumonic device.  And when we hear words sung they stick in our minds and so these scripture passages stick in people’s minds by way of the melodies that they’ve heard in Messiah.

Mohler: Now one of the things that certainly comes to mind is the fact that as we’re having this conversation very much with Christmas approaching, in the American context the Messiah is most often associated with Christmas.  And churches, civic performances of this oratorio, tend to be located in December with the advent and Christmas season.  But when you really look at the story there’s no particular reason why it should be here rather than associated with Easter.

Stapert: Uh no, there is no reason.  In fact Easter was the original…I mean it was typically performed during the Lent season.  In fact, all of Handel’s performances in his lifetime took place in the spring.

Mohler: So why do you think we see it differently?  Is that just something of a cultural accident, or is there some reason you believe that we do it this way?

Stapert: If there’s a reason, it escapes me.  I don’t know when this started and why it started there.  Why it took hold and stays there.  I do think there’s a certain appropriateness to you might say at the beginning of the church year looking ahead at the whole story.  And of course the story does start with the Christmas part.  Part one of Messiah is definitely the incarnation and part two starts with the suffering and death and goes on from there.  But you know why it has settled in at Christmas time rather than Easter time is something I don’t know.

Mohler: Well nor do I.  But I do think it’s interesting that it tells us something about how we understand this oratorio.  It tells us that we associate it with the great theme of incarnation front and center.  And I don’t think Handel would be at all offended by that because that is indeed the great announcement that is made by this great oratorio.  Professor Stapert I have to ask you before I let you go: What is your favorite recording of Messiah.

Stapert: Oh well my favorite is the one by Bach Collegiums of Japan directed by Masaaki Suzuki.  They are one of the great performing organizations of baroque music particularly of Bach but of baroque music in general.  And Masaaki Suzuki thoroughly understands the Christian text and fully believes in himself, and it comes through in his music.  That is my favorite.  There are many good performances though.

Mohler: Well, I promise you I’m going to order that one right away.  And it tells me something that delights me to know that this great oratorio written in England by a German composer performed first in Dublin, Ireland and continuously thereafter finds in your favorite recording one that was done in Japan.  There’s something absolutely powerful, and I think quite moving about that.

Stapert: Yeah there sound has gone out into all the world.

Mohler: Taken in its full scale Messiah is a massive composition and for good reason.  Just consider the story that it’s telling.  The story of God’s salvation of his people beginning with the promise that was given to Israel through the prophet Isaiah and going all the way to the throne scene in the book of Revelation as the blessed ones of God are gathered to declare the glory of the lamb of God slain before the foundation of the world.  It’s a massive piece of music.  It is a deeply textured composition.  It is a very complex piece of musical achievement and most of us know it by its parts.  There are certain components of Messiah that have taken deep resonance in our minds.  They have taken such resonance in our imagination and in our musical memory that we do indeed, as we just discussed, tend to hear many portions of scripture as if set to music by Handel.  That tells us something about the power of music it also tells us something about why we should consider so carefully what we hear and why we are so drawn to it.

Christians in the English speaking world tend to hear Handel’s oratorio Messiah and understand the story by the fact that we first of all understand the Scriptures.  When we have an acquaintance and a knowledge of the Scriptures that is brought to a new dimension of understanding by Charles Jennens and his libretto, the text to the oratorio and then it’s set to dynamic, memorable, and majestic music by Handel.  As we listen to Messiah there’s several things we ought to keep in mind.  First of all Professor Stapert is very helpful in indicating that there was a specific theological context into which this oratorio was to arrive and that was the challenge of deism.  Now deism was then and now a competitor religion to theism and in particular to Christianity.  The god of theism is a creator god who removes himself from active involvement in his creation.  The god of the deists explains how the universe came to be but explains nothing of the events of humanity or the natural order.  The god of deism is removed and inactive into the void of that very attractive alternative faith to Christianity.  In the midst of that 18th century period after the enlightenment where there are so many live questions of so many people who are beginning to wonder if Christianity really had that great compelling story we know as the gospel, well that is when Jennens and Handel enter with Messiah.

Now Handel was a story teller he uses music to tell the story.  And when he tells the story of Messiah it’s interesting to know where he did and thus by reference also where he did not begin.  He begins in the prophecy to Isaiah, “comfort ye my people” and thus Handel begins as Jennens began with the promise of comfort to God’s people and then there follows the entire story of redemption.  But it’s interesting to note where Handel and where Jennens did not begin.  They did not begin with human sinfulness.  They did not begin with the great problem of human depravity and the fall that occasioned the need for redemption.  They don’t begin with any particular understanding of sin.  There are references to sin and iniquity but there is no particular investment in convincing the audience of Messiah of their sinfulness.  There are several other things that are fascinating.  There is a very selective use of scripture in Messiah for instance only a few texts of scripture are repeated and those are all from Isaiah-Isaiah 9, 40, 53, and 60.  Components of those four chapters appear over and over again.  Now there are several portions of scripture from the Old Testament that are woven together in order to tell the story and a few also from the New Testament.

Now Professor Stapert told us something very important and that is the fact that in these great solos are arias, in the particular pieces of music that tell the story where a soloist is reciting the biblical story in voice, Jesus does not appear and for good reason.  As Professor Stapert said it would’ve been awkward and considered inappropriate to have a character represent Jesus.  So instead there are references to him but unlike in the gospels where you find the words of Jesus spoken by Jesus, well, Jennens and Handel instead weave the story from other biblical texts in order that the prophets tell the story in anticipation.  And the angels and the heavenly hosts tell the story in its conclusion.  There are other things that are interestingly missing.  Although there is a clear focus on the cross there is absolutely no reference to the clear text in scripture witch deal with a doctrine of atonement.  There’s no particular explanation as to how the suffering and death of Christ and his resurrection achieve for us our salvation.  Now that means that as we listen to Messiah we need to keep in mind that it was written for an audience that would in the main have known the contours of the Christian story.  Would’ve known the great story and architecture of the gospel and so there are clear implications in this story.  There are clear assumptions being made by the composer and the librettists in terms of what an audience should be expected to know.

Now when we listen to Messiah we listen to this great oratorio we are listening with ears that are tuned to hear the same scriptures in basically the same way that Jennens and Handel use them.  We do hear the prophet speaking of the Messiah who would come and we know that that Messiah is none other than Jesus Christ.  And so what we have in this particularly Christian reading of the Old Testament is an oratorio that helps us to understand the great theme of promise and fulfillment.  And so the promise with which the oratorio begins given by God through his prophet Isaiah to his people, a promise of comfort, is transformed by the time we end this oratorio not only with the comfort given to God’s redeemed people but to the great joy and overflowing hallelujah of the declarations of the glory of the Lamb who achieves for us that very salvation.

Now if we know the historical background and the theological context of this oratorio it helps us to understand why it is such a majestic and moving assertion of orthodox Christology of why it would have such and impact in the post-enlightenment world of presenting the Christian gospel not only in terms of its facts and truth claims but in terms of a great cultural and musical composition that would reach not only the mind and the ears but would reach the heart and the soul.  That’s the great power of music.  There is no way that anyone can listen to Messiah especially a believer, and not find heart, and mind, and soul literally cresting and rising exhilarated by the music.  There should be no apology for that. But we should also understand the danger in that.  Music can be very seductive in that lies can be put to music with almost equally majestic force. And that’s why we must test all things by the scriptures.  The real test of Handel’s Messiah when it comes to its orthodoxy is the use of scripture.  And you know the great protection there is the fact that every single word of this oratorio is directly drawn from scripture.  And so one of the great protections when we’re listening to Handel tell this story is the fact that every word that is going to be sung, every word that is going to be heard is going to be coming from the scriptures.  Now theologians, and church historians, and biblical scholars have looked at Messiah over the years in order to consider its theological content, its apologetic strategy, its musical contours of course and compositional features, but also they have come to understand that there is a particular way that this oratorio has taken hold upon the Christian imagination.  And so here in the advent of Christmas season when so many people are listening to and attending performances of Messiah we come to understand that somehow in our minds this story is fixated on the great truth of the incarnation from which everything else follows.  Well, when we listen to Messiah we find that we’re involved in an act of biblical interpretation that was started by Charles Jennens as he indeed used his knowledge in order to assert orthodox Christianity against the context of deism.  We’re also listening to the story told as there is great selectivity and art used in moving from one biblical occasion to the next from one part of the story to the next until we reach its climactic conclusions.  You know when we think about the Messiah, we think about this great oratorio we tend to think of it remembering where we heard it first and where we may have heard it most recently.  And then we realize that it has taken resonance in our hearts and minds.  Let me tell you of a great fear I have.  I fear that we may be the last generation for whom this is true.  I fear that going back to 1742 and recognizing that there never has been a time when this music has not been performed consistently from 1742 to the present, you have to wonder in the age of the i-pod will Messiah and similar works of majestic scale survive?  You know there is great loss in the loss of hymnody and a common hymnody that ties Christians together especially within churches and denominations crossing generations.  There’s great loss when a musical achievement of the quality, and scale, and scope of Messiah is lost to the active imagination of Christians.  So with that in mind, I would suggest to you that this Christmas season well it’s a wonderful time to reappropriate your knowledge of Messiah. To expand your knowledge of this great work and one way you can do that of course is by reading Professor Stapert’s book Handel’s Messiah:  Comfort for God’s People recently released by Eerdmans.  But you can also get a good recording and, by means of that recording, you can come to know Messiah in a whole new way.  Take the time to listen to it.  Take the time to listen to it over and over again.  Listen to it actively as you have opportunity but especially during this season let it also become a part of the background music of your life.  That’s no insult to this piece of music nor to any other because it can be heard on so many different levels.  I want to recommend two recordings that I think you’ll find easily accessible and quite enjoyable.  The first is the cd set also available by mp3 download which is conducted by Neville Marriner and features the academy and choristers of St. Martin in the Fields church in London.  It’s a massive and wonderful two cd selection very commonly accessible and available just about anywhere quality music is found.  But I also want to recommend something that you might not know about and that is a spectacular dvd presentation of the 250th anniversary performance of Messiah plus a documentary that was done about the work.  This was done back in 1992, and it is also conducted by Sr. Neville Marriner.  And it involves musicians there in London.  It is majestic.  It is known as Handel’s Messiah plus Forever and Ever and you’ll find links to these recordings at my website at connected to this program.

There are all kinds of recordings of Messiah and the good news is there are ever more coming.  But if you have an opportunity go to see and hear a performance and if you have the opportunity sing in that great choir,  Singing the great music of Messiah.

I want to let you know about a very important conference to be held on the Southern Seminary campus February 11-12 of 2011.  On that date we’re going to host our annual Give Me An Answer Collegiate Conference which is especially designed to offer apologetic encouragement to college students.  We deal with the very real questions being asked by this generation and as we look to the future, this year’s theme is Recalibrate.  Come join me along with Russell Moore and our special guest C.J. Mahaney as we challenge college students to focus on true theology and live a life of humble obedience.  For more information visit our website at  Thanks for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking.  I’m Albert Mohler.