I have a rule in our house that I teach and enforce with great fervency. This rule shares the same dedication that I have toward rooting for the Dallas Cowboys. The rule is that there is no Christmas music before Thanksgiving! Really though I am a big softy because the original rule was, "No Christmas music before Advent." Due to my children's lobbying and relentless chipping away of my every fiber of resistance, I caved.
So in our house as I'm sure yours, the Christmas music has begun. After dinner we usually try to learn a hymn from the hymnal so we can all sing together. During Advent we try to learn an Advent hymn or Christmas hymn. One piece of music that has been very near and dear to my heart around the celebration of the birth of Christ, and the church in general, is George Frideric Handel's Messiah. I remember growing up and being forced by my parents to listen to this music around Christmas time and even attending live performances of it. I put up a fight often, but I really did like it. Little did I know at the time how impressive this musical performance is.
You probably would recognize one particular song in The Messiah. It is known all over and has appeared in movies, commercials and various places. The most popular and well known song in this piece is the Alleluia chorus. The rest of The Messiah is just as wonderful if not even more majestic than the Alleluia chorus.
Handel's Messiah is a remarkable piece of music. It was written by Handel in 1741. Handel was a Lutheran and a contemporary of Bach but it seems the two never met. However, it seems the two both suffered from blindness later in life and according to multiple sources, both of them suffered as a result of failed eye procedures. From the same surgeon! Bach's death is tied to the surgery and Handel lost his eyesight permanently before he died. That is about all the two have in common besides their Lutheran confession and great music.
Handel was a composer who wrote his first performance at the age of 12. His life was then centered around music and he wrote his performances mostly for secular settings. The performances though were all Christ centered. Bach of course was a church cantor(musician trained in theology). Handel tried to make a living writing music for performance and unfortunately fell on hard times and lost most of his money. He was on the verge of bankruptcy multiple times.
"Yet Handel retained his sense of humor through virtually any hardship. Once, just as an oratorio of his was about to begin, several of his friends gathered to console him about the extremely sparse audience attracted to the performance. "Never mind," Handel joked to his friends. "The music will sound the better" due to the improved acoustics of a very empty concert hall!"
Handel was then asked to write a musical performance for a Dublin charity. Handel did not want to disappoint. Handel sat and wrote furiously. He completed the work in 24 days. The performance had 260 pages and was titled Messiah. This is amazingly fast for a work as brilliant as it is. Mozart supposedly said,
"Handel understands effect better than any of us -- when he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt... ... "Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived... I would uncover my head and kneel down on his tomb."
Handel's Messiah begins with John the Baptist and the Old Testament prophesies speaking of Christ's coming. Then Handel focuses on the birth of Christ finally ending in the resurrection. The piece was not necessarily written for the Christmas season but since coming to America it has made its home in the holiday season. Perhaps it is because Bach's St. Matthew's Passion is considered the quintessential Easter baroque music piece and The Messiah is given the other holy season.
The performance was an immediate hit. Handel was raised up from the depths of poverty and enjoyed a rather comfortable life until his death in 1759. He left his wealth to the church, friends and charity. He conducted an annual concert for his favorite charity that helped abandoned and poor children. The Messiah has enjoyed constant play and has sold millions of albums. Every performance hall and classical music radio station that is worth a hill of beans hosts performances and recitals every holiday season.
If you have never attentively listened to The Messiah I encourage you to do so this Advent and Christmas season. Maybe you too can begin a family tradition of sorts that your kids will pass on. You can find the text for the music and it will help you, like our Sunday liturgy, memorize parts of scripture. The sacred music also helps escape the hustle and bustle of the secular Christmas rush. The dogs barking "Jingle Bells" is great. However, I do believe the celebration of the birth of the creator of our universe is deserving of something more honorable than the canine chorus or the beloved "Grandma got Run Over by a Reindeer."
Use this Advent season to prepare your hearts for Christ's coming to us in his word and sacrament. Not just on Christmas Day but also every Lord's Day as we gather together for worship. Our whole lives are lives of preparing for the joyous advent of Christ. We are preparing and waiting for our Lord's coming when we will hear angels and archangels and all the heavenly hosts sing together with our voices the same song they sang to the shepherds , "Glory to God in highest and peace to the earth."
See you on Sunday (and Wednesdays in Advent!).
The Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers by Patrick Cavanaugh, published in 1992 by Sparrow Press, Nashville.