Part Two of Messiah, by George Frederic Handel, begins solemnly and dramatically with the words of John the Baptist: “Behold, the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.”
The Christmas portion just concluded (Part One) has brought the listener to this declaration. Following the announcement of the glory of God to the Judean shepherds, we learn about the purpose for the coming of the Christ: “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd.” And we are invited to “Come unto Him, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and he will give you rest. Take His yoke upon you and learn of Him. His yoke is easy, and His burden is light.”
Part Two then identifies the shepherd as also the Lamb of God, God’s own sacrifice to take away the sin of the world. This Lamb, the Christ, will give rest to our souls by the suffering that is depicted in the first half of this section. John’s declaration is bold, and solemn; it is full of conviction, and it is sorrowful. As each voice part enters – first the alto, then soprano, followed by bass and finally the tenor – the first pitch is in the lower register of the voice (“Be-”) with an immediate leap up one full octave (“-hold”). It is an arresting statement, musically forcing the sense of the word: “Behold!” Pay attention! Look! (The tenor leap of an octave is delayed to the end of the phrase, emphasizing that this Lamb is from God for us; he is the “Lamb”[low G] “of God” [high G].
Messiah is full of word-paintings like that “Behold.” In these posts I will be pointing out some of the more significant and noticeable ones. When as musicians we get these right; when we identify the word/music interplays and sing them well and meaningfully, the listener perceives and tracks what is going on, without necessarily having to cognitively mark them. In the era in which Handel lived, there was a well-developed tool-kit of rhetorical devices to let music express particular feelings, so that whether or not there were words, the music “meant” something. One of those devices in this opening chorus is a stylized rhythm that is present in all but 7 measures – a rhythmic figure that was meant to represent mourning and lament. That rhythm most notably carries the words “Lamb of God” and “taketh away.”
We won’t spend a full post on each chorus, but it is helpful perhaps to establish some of these ideas at the outset, within a single chorus. The principle of musical rhetoric will come up a lot, and as already noted, we will point to the main, important, obvious details to listen for. Another feature to address early is the ubiquitous repetition of phrases.
When approached by an English bishop with a commission to compose some sacred music, the bishop offered suggestions to Handel about how the scriptures might be set to music. Complaining privately about this, Handel reportedly groused, “I think I know my Bible as well as any bishop!” And, truly, he appears to have known the Bible very well indeed. And though English was certainly Handel’s third spoken language (and the fourth language for which he wrote music), for the most part he seemed to know the English Bible with its particular nuances. The Scriptures of Messiah were chosen by an English clergyman, but G.F. was the one who decided how the text worked with the music, including what to repeat. Over and over again, I am impressed with the theological importance of words and phrases that are repeated. Musically, there are almost no simple note-for-note repetitions, but rather subtle (or dramatic) changes enhance the meaning and the feeling of a given text, so that by the end of a chorus or aria, we have been treated to a richness of meaning through varied expression.
So, while it takes just moments to quote the Baptist’s cry, “Behold, the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world,” musically we are treated to about 2 and 1/2 minutes of reflection. It is arresting, contemplative, and mournful. We are being prepared for the suffering of the Lamb in the immediately following numbers. You hear throughout Messiah that certain Scriptures are set very plainly, barely more music and than speaking. The compser made a devotional and theological decision here to not rush through this simple exclamation.
And that lingering and looking at Jesus that is why we are presenting Messiah on Sunday, April 1. “Behold! And see if there be any sorry like unto his sorrow.”