Calvin Stapert: 'Let us sing of greater things'

Though moderns associate Handel's "Messiah" with Advent and Christmas, it is an oratorio for all seasons, a story of deliverance and a defense of orthodox Christian faith, says the music history scholar.

One of the most beloved works of sacred music, Handel’s “Messiah” is the result of a series of remarkable and unlikely events, said Calvin R. Stapert, professor emeritus of music at Calvin College.

StapertThe story of “Messiah” begins with a form of music that grew out of the Catholic Counter-Reformation in 16th-century Italy and ends with a German Lutheran composer writing an oratorio in 18th-century England at a time when England had no tradition of oratorio.

And the result was a work of art that helped spread the gospel throughout the world, taking it to more people than any other single work except the Bible, said Stapert, the author of “Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People.”

“There’s simply nothing in music history that comes close,” Stapert said. “It is unparalleled in having so many performances for such a long time at such regular intervals by so many people, by so many performers, with so many listeners.”

Stapert spoke with Faith & Leadership recently about “Messiah,” its history and purpose, and the nature of art and entertainment. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Many people today associate Handel’s “Messiah” with Advent and Christmas. Are we mistaken in talking with you about it for Lent and Easter?

There’s no problem with that at all. In fact, during Handel’s lifetime, “Messiah” and all his oratorios -- “Samson” and “Saul” and “Solomon” and all the rest -- were always performed during Lent.

It really had nothing to do with the specific nature of Lent and Holy Week. It was more the idea that it was inappropriate to have opera and other theatrical performances during Lent. An oratorio was not a staged entertainment, and it was sacred, so these performances always fell during Lent.

To tell you the truth, I don’t know how the tradition got started that “Messiah” was performed in Advent, but once it got started, it really stuck. It is appropriate during that time of year, but the content of “Messiah,” of course, covers the entire liturgical year, and the largest part of it is the Passion.

Q: You open your book with a quote from John Newton in 1786 who said that “Messiah,” when masterfully executed, can “afford one of the highest and noblest gratifications of which we are capable in the present life.” You agree?

I do. There’s simply nothing in music history that comes close. It is unparalleled in having so many performances for such a long time at such regular intervals by so many people, by so many performers, with so many listeners.

It’s unprecedented. There’s nothing to equal it. There have been various theories about why it was “Messiah” and not something else. Generally, they come down to little more than that Handel had a very good text to work with and he was a very good composer, and you put those together and you have something of lasting value. But you could say that about any number of works that haven’t caught on this way.

Q: You say “Messiah” is the result of a series of remarkable and unlikely events. Give us a brief history.

The story begins with a genre of music that grew out of the Catholic Counter-Reformation during the 16th century in Italy -- the oratorio -- and it ends with a composer who is German and Lutheran writing an oratorio in England at a time when England had no tradition of oratorio, except what Handel had written in the few years before “Messiah.”

Handel invented this English offspring of Italian-Catholic oratorio, and a lot of unlikely things had to happen along the way.

First, Handel went to Italy for a short period of time when he was a fledgling composer and got acquainted with Italian oratorio and then moved to London, where he wrote Italian opera. That’s what he loved doing. He was a man of the theater. He loved the drama of opera. He had a flair for it, and he would have done that the rest of his life.

But the English -- I say this tongue in cheek -- realized that this was a strange thing they were doing, spending a couple of hours or more listening to something in Italian that they didn’t understand. So, understandably, Italian opera in England fell by the wayside and Handel needed to find a substitute, which was his English version of the Italian oratorio that he got a taste of during his years in Italy. He sort of had to invent the genre.

Q: It’s called Handel’s “Messiah,” so we tend to forget the librettist, Charles Jennens. A critic at the time dismissed his contribution, saying it was an easy task, just putting together passages of Scripture, but you disagree.

Jennens’ contribution is tremendous. Despite what that critic said, it was no easy task to select these passages from Scripture. The selection is masterful. The more I look at it, the more I think it’s absolutely perfect.

He was not a great writer, but he was a good scholar -- in fact, a very good Shakespeare scholar. His critic was another Shakespeare scholar who was jealous and savaged the guy. Jennens probably had some of it coming. He seems to have been a very pompous, arrogant guy, but he was not incompetent. He was also independently wealthy, so he had the time to spend working on these things.

There are at least a couple of things that make his selections of Scripture for the text so good.

First, they are some of the favorite passages from Scripture -- wonderful prophecies, glorious hymns from Revelation, and some of the exalted language of Paul and of the Psalms. He found passages that, especially if set to music by a master like Handel, would be immediately engaging, but he also put them together in a sequence that is masterfully done.

Q: Tell us about the purpose of “Messiah.” What were Handel and Jennens trying to accomplish?

This was a time when deism was very much on the rise. It was a definite threat to the church, and Jennens’ collections of texts are meant to convince people that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the long-expected Redeemer of his people.

There are lots of pieces of literature -- sermons and commentaries and various tracts and pamphlets and even poetry from that time -- that had the same thrust, defending the traditional teaching of the church about the Triune God and the second person of the trinity, the Messiah, the one who will save his people.

“Messiah” is just one of countless pieces in that period that have to do with defending traditional church belief over against the deism that was becoming so strong. It was very much a defense of orthodox Christian faith.

Q: How was it received at the time?

Handel performed it for the first time in 1742 in Dublin, much to Jennens’ dissatisfaction, because he, of course, wanted it in London. But it went over very well in Dublin. In fact, it got rave reviews.

The next year, it was performed in London and generated some of the controversy that oratorios had always suffered from -- the notion that oratorio really had no home. Some thought it was too sacred to be performed in a theater, and others that it was too theatrical to be performed in a church.

But overall, its reception in London was at best lukewarm. Many liked it, many didn’t think it was anything special, and some thought it inappropriate to perform it in the theater.

It’s another one of those things that makes you wonder -- if the first performance had been in London and the reception was lukewarm, would it have taken off the way it did?

It was performed next in Dublin again and then elsewhere on the British Isles and then back in London, and by then some of the negativity about performing it in a theater had worn off. [The negativity] vanished in 1750 when Handel performed it at the Foundling Hospital, which wasn’t a theater or a church but an in-between ground that was a worthy place for a sacred work.

“Messiah” became a yearly series at the Foundling Hospital for a while, and then in other places. And it spread not only over the British Isles but to the continent and across the ocean to America, and before the 19th century was over, it had gone all around the world. And this was when the big choral society tradition starts, sometimes with literally casts of thousands performing Handel’s “Messiah.”

Q: In the book you recount an incident where someone complimented Handel on the fine entertainment that “Messiah” provided people, and he reportedly said, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wish to make them better.” Tell us about Handel’s desire to, as you put it, both teach and delight.

Handel didn’t say he didn’t want to entertain but that he would be sorry if that’s all he did. There was this dual function of entertaining and teaching, and of entertaining in order to teach or teaching in order to entertain. He didn’t want entertainment to be just some frivolous amusement diversion. He meant “entertain” more in the sense that we do when we say we entertain an idea.

Today, there’s a different flavor to the idea of entertainment. Then, it meant something more serious. It wasn’t that entertainment can’t be lighthearted but that there’s a serious purpose behind it. It was an age-old theory that art served both these functions at the same time.

It’s only later that we have the idea that the “fine arts” are not entertainment and entertainment arts are just frivolous pastimes. Handel and Jennens were very much still of that older school in which art both entertains and teaches.

Q: You write that Handel was a storyteller. Tell us about that -- and if it’s so, what’s the story of “Messiah”?

All his career Handel was writing operas. Operas tell stories. It’s the same thing with the oratorios; they tell stories. Now “Messiah,” of course, is a different kind of story.

He could have told it in terms of all the historical events in Christ’s life: his birth, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension. He or Jennens could have put together a libretto telling the story that way, but they didn’t.

They told it from another angle. Instead of telling it by way of the Gospels, it’s told largely through prophecy and then augmented by way of the Psalms, which of course can also be read prophetically, and then a bit from Paul and Revelation.

It’s this mainly prophetic mode of telling that story that makes “Messiah” unique. But it is a story. The story of “Messiah” is a deliverance story: the story of the coming of the deliverer, his act of delivering and his final triumph.

Q: Tell us about the mottoes that Jennens provided for the work. You say those sum up the meaning of “Messiah” as well as anything.

They were supplied by Jennens to come at the head of the work. He begins with a two-word Latin quotation from Virgil, majora canamus, “Let us sing of greater things.”

That is exactly what he intended for “Messiah” to be. Handel had been singing of Julius Caesar and other ancient heroes. Then he had turned to singing of ancient heroes of the Old Testament, Esther and Deborah and Samson. But now Jennens is saying, “Let us sing of greater things. In fact, let us sing of the greatest thing that ever happened, this story of redemption.”

Then he quotes two verses from Paul: one from 1 Timothy and another one from Colossians.

This is the one from 1 Timothy 3:16: “And without controversy, great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, justified by the Spirit, seen of angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory.”

In other words, a summary of the whole thing, from being manifested in the flesh to being received up in glory.

And then from Colossians 2:3: “In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

These two verses are really what “Messiah” is about. That’s the story in a nutshell.

Q: What has been the impact of Handel’s “Messiah”?

First, and most generally, it has preached the gospel to more people than any other single work excepting the Bible. By telling this story of salvation year after year in hundreds and thousands of places around the world for a couple of centuries and more, it has brought the gospel to more people than any other single thing.

You can find stories of people for whom it has had an enormous impact. You might even say it’s been the engine to their conversion. On the other hand, you also have people simply being thrilled by the music. Probably its biggest impact has been not so much in evangelism as it has been in strengthening the faith of those who already believe.