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Why Handel’s Messiah?

December 18, 2019
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Inspired by last week’s Service of Lessons and Carols, Dr. Andy Stoker shares some insights after taking a deep dive into the history of Handel’s Messiah. 

It had been years since I completed “Music Appreciation” class in college, so when Dana Effler was describing the musicology of Messiah by George Frideric Handel, during a recent worship meeting, I felt I was right back in school. Dana gave the reasons for the movements of this work and how they interacted to convey both dramatic flair of an opera and the emotion around the story of Christ. I rushed back to my office and pulled a book I bought after Tim Effler’s “History of Music” class last year through our Discipleship Education series:  Messiah: The Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece by Jonathan Keates. (Interestingly, chapter 1 of the book is entitled “A Composer at the Crossroads”; I thought this might make a good promo for Messiah at FirstChurch, but I kept it to myself.) With the inspiration of the upcoming week in worship, I finished the book in two nights. I became increasingly aware that God had inspired our music and arts ministry to offer Messiah in 2019; there were just too many similarities and convergences about early 18th century England and today.

Why Handel’s Messiah?

George Handel (1685-1759) emigrated from Germany to England three decades before composing Messiah in 1741. There was a significant upheaval in the royal family after Queen Anne died, the line of Stuart would cease and there would be a new house to rule England. The new king, George I, was a music lover and would frequent the opera house where Handel was, in essence, the music director. Handel wrote operas in English verse to awaken a new audience to opera. In 1727, Handel became a naturalized Briton and George II succeeded his father to the throne. At George II’s coronation, Handel composed four anthems that would be performed for the expectant audience. It was “the best of times and the worst of times” for Handel in these years. He received great success and then fell on a creative drought. So, in 1741, he made arrangements to move to Dublin to rest, recover and renew himself. It was July into August of that year, in just 24 days, that Handel composed a new oratorio called Messiah. This is an interesting story in and of itself, but, upon deeper reflection and further reading, it seems that God was doing something new, not only in Handel, but also in England.

The changing musical, artistic, political, social, ecclesiastical landscape was shifting in te 18th century England. New forms of music and art were enlivening citizens to see and sense God in a diversity of ways. The shift in political power was taking hold as upstart colonists in so-called “New England” were questioning the true meaning of liberty and freedom. The beginnings of the Industrial Revolution called people from the “town” to the “city” for more lucrative labor. And, the Church of England was wrestling with a reform movement. This is the same time when the Methodism of John Wesley and his followers took hold of faith communities across the country, and devastating natural disasters pushed previously uncommitted individuals to take their faith more seriously. As Keates mentioned, this was a time when people were crying out for the lofty and the exalted – Messiah was the ideal response to that outcry.

So, this got me thinking about what God is doing in and through us today as we were captured all over again like the first to hear the words of Scripture underscored by Handel. Why Handel’s Messiah? I believe what we heard on Sunday ought to inspire us for such a time as this. That out of the chaos, the upheaval, the challenges on every side, the Messiah and the Messiah points to our greatest hope, yes, for the world, but more for the Christ who will be born in us today to face it all.

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