George Frideric Handel’s Messiah
On the Sunday morning before Christmas, 1980, as I sat on the sands outside the temple of Sri Sathya Sai Baba in Puttaparthi a small tune came into my head. It was a lilting refrain, and it played itself over and over again, insistently, as if asking to be recognized. But I could not remember exactly what it was, nor what words went to it, although this seemed important. All I knew was that it came from somewhere in Handel’s “Messiah”. When I was younger I used to hear this work every year, then later I sang in the chorus on a few occasions. My singing teacher had given me two soprano arias from “Messiah” to practise. And in my own music classes, we often studied it. I had grown to appreciate the magnificent music more and more, but the full impact of the words had come upon me only a few weeks before Christmas,1980.
Before, I had always assumed the entire “Messiah” was about Jesus. But one day six years after knowing about Sai Baba and three years after seeing Him for the first time, I began to wonder. The parts about Jesus were all in the past tense, and the parts about the Lord, for whom a new highway would have to be made in the wilderness, were in the present and the future. Not many days before, I myself had used a road that had only been in existence for a few years, to reach the courtyards of Sai. With me I had brought my musical score of Handel’s “Messiah”, rather the worse for wear, and it lay on my lap as I waited for Baba to come out. With it was a letter asking Baba to confirm my belief that a great deal of this oratorio is about Him, and also asking Him to bless a performance of it one day in His presence. I had begun to envision this grand event, complete with choir, soloists and orchestra under a certain world famous conductor. The idea seemed fantastic, but not unrealizable. I pictured people all over the world practising their parts, then gathering in Puttaparthi to put the finishing touches to the whole, all in the same spirit of love, service and devotion with which Handel wrote the music and Jennens found the words for ‘The Messiah’.
My mind travelled back in time and space from India, 1980, to London in the late summer of 1741. The Governor of Ireland had asked “The Great Mr. Handel”, as he was often called, to write an oratorio for a charitable benefit concert. Handel was wondering what material to use, when a certain Charles Jennens came to him with a libretto for an oratorio made up of texts from the Old and New Testaments that said, in essence: “Prepare for the coming of the Lord in all His glory, for the sacrifice of Christ Jesus was not in vain.”
Jennens could not understand himself why he had been impelled to begin selecting texts from the Bible, nor why he had selected those particular ones. An atmosphere of wonder surrounded the entire creation of “The Messiah”. Handel was so inspired by the libretto that he composed the music in 23 days, hardly stopping to eat or sleep. A servant, tip toeing into his room one evening to take away an untouched supper tray, found him in a state of ecstasy. A glorious vision seemed to be still hovering before his inner gaze, and he said, “I did think I saw all heaven before me, and the Great God Himself.” He had, the legend says, just composed the “Hallelujah” chorus.
Following its premiere for charity in Dublin, ‘The Messiah’ came to London for a royal command performance in a full theatre, before King George II. The first stirring notes of the “Hallelujah” chorus brought the King to his feet, followed by the entire audience. It is still traditional for audiences to rise for this particular chorus.
Having originally composed this music for charity, Handel continued to use it in service of society throughout the rest of his life, giving benefit performances regularly for charities dear to his heart. In his will he left a copy of the musical score and several sets of words to the London Foundling Hospital.
Coming back to the twentieth century and Puttaparthi, I found the persistent little tune still chirping away in my head, asking to be identified. But morning Darshan did not seem the right time or place for games of ‘Guess the Theme’. Sternly banishing the motif as if it were some kind of friendly but superfluous mosquito, I resolved to calm my spirits by looking up an inspiration for the day. Usually, I do this with one of Baba’s recent books, but today all I had with me was ‘The Messiah’. Being full of sacred writings, it should do very well for a change. I then opened my score at random, and found myself looking at none other than my ‘lost’ theme, which had been set to the words, “He is the King of Glory! He is the King of Glory!”
At that precise moment, just as I had read and marvelled at these words, Sai Baba Himself strolled into view on the other side of the courtyard, moving majestically in rhythm to the theme, and glowing in the gold of the morning sun in His scarlet robe. All through in that unique and splendid Darshan, while Baba visited the hosts who had been awaiting Him, and faces opened up like flowers to the sun, I could “hear” with incredible clarity the mighty chorus from which comes my “little” theme:
‘Lift up your heads, O ye gates,’ sing the higher voices of the choir, like herald angels. And be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in!”
“Who is this King of Glory? Who is this King of Glory?” inquire the lower voices, those of the men.
“The Lord of Hosts, the Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle,” comes the reply from on high. Then all the voices, high and low, unite as if heaven and earth had joined forces, to exult: “He is the King of Glory.”
The music was over and Baba had now nearly completed His stately progress around the ladies’ courtyard. As He arrived at my place in the Darshan line, I held out the score and the letter, wondering what He would do. What He did was beautiful in its simplicity. He placed His hand firmly for a moment on the tattered pages full of the hopes of generations and the visions of prophets since Isaiah, and gave His blessing.
Filed under: Blessing, Chorus, Glory, Hallelujah, Handel, Handel Messiah, Isaiah, King Of Glory, Lord Of Hosts, Prophet Tagged: | Charles Jennens, Christmas, Composer, George Frideric Handel, Guru, Jesus, Lord, Messiah, Music, New Testament, Old Testament, Sai Baba, sathya sai baba, Second Coming