Handel and Haydn

MessiahA review of two books on two great composers and their music

Calvin Stapert, professor emeritus of music at Calvin College in Grand Rapids has produced two very attractive books on Handel’s Messiah and on Joseph Haydn.

Praying before the Lord: The Life and Work of Joseph Haydn is a lovely survey of Haydn’s life and work, which will appeal to those who appreciate the Sturm und Drang of his symphonies and want to learn more about the man behind the beautiful Creation (which has its own Appendix).

Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People is a superb book, a well informed yet very accessible guide to the historical background and reception of Handel’s great masterpiece. The best part is a scene-by-scene, track-by-track commentary on the music itself, including parts of the score, which will bring it even more to life the next time you listen to it.

One of my favourite parts of Messiah has always been “All we like sheep, have gone astray”, from Isaiah 53:6. Someone once said to me that they thought the frivolity of this section indicated Handel could not have been a Christian, because he obviously didn’t understand how serious sin is. But, on the contrary, as Stapert so nicely brings out, “Handel’s music perfectly depicts the silliness of wandering away from the Shepherd. The melodic lines wander this way and that, and sometimes they stupidly turn around and around, going nowhere.” The musical change when “the iniquity of us all” is laid on the Suffering Servant “is one of the more dramatic changes in the history of music”, says Stapert, “F minor returns like a wall of doom.”

This is brilliant, and helps tease out the theology from a timeless classic. One to give to the musos and culture vultures perhaps, to start an evangelistic conversation?

This review was first published in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

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