Getting a Handel on Messiah

Title: Getting a Handel on Messiah
Author: David W. Barber
Pages: 95
Reading Level: 10 & up
Star Rating: ★★★

Hi there! As of October 2013, I have upgraded to a new site – The Blithering Bookster – where I have posted all of my old reviews and continue to post new ones. Hoist yourself over to join the fun!


All of us have heard bits and pieces from Handel’s Messiah – the Hallelujah Chorus, if nothing else. But what makes Messiah such a popular work? And how did it come to be?

The History of Messiah.

Prior to composing Messiah, Handel had composed many other operas – several were even based on Biblical stories. However, in spite of his creativity, Handel was not in a good financial situation in the early 1740s, and when the opportunity came for him to travel from London to Dublin, he jumped at the chance.

It was there in Dublin, on April 13, 1742, that Messiah made its debut. It was immediately and loudly heralded by the Irish. But when Handel brought Messiah to London, it was received with less fervor. In fact, it was received with so little warmth, that there were several years in which it was not performed, including a four-year stretch between 1745 and 1749. During this time, Handel made changes to Messiah; he reworked several sections and found new vocalists. When Messiah reemerged in 1749, it was warmly received.

Down through the centuries Messiah has remained remarkably popular. Its sober lyrics and glorious music thrill audiences across the globe, while its place in history is confirmed. Its days of struggling are passed – the world shall never forget Messiah.


Barber writes in an irreverent humorous style (which he admits himself). His self-appointed job is to make fun of everybody – Handel, his critics, his admirers, everyone. It is hilarious to read, but removes the solemnity from the glorious work and casts Handel’s motives for composing Messiah in a purely mercenary light.

Among other things, Barber accuses Handel of stealing large parts of his manuscripts from other composers (he says that this is fact – I do not know enough about Handel to contradict him). He also makes other, more arbitrary statements like, “Handel could swear, quite colorfully, in at least four modern languages, and probably a couple of dead ones, too.” [pg. 38]

Here is a bit of Barber’s cynicism at work.

Although not much of a churchgoer in his youth and middle age, Handel in his later years could have won an award for faithful attendance. By then he was going twice a day, regular as clockwork, to the little church of St. George’s, Hanover Square, around the corner from his house on Brook Street. There’s nothing like impending death to inspire a little religious fervor.

As for the work itself, Handel once later remarked that, while composing the Hallelujah chorus, he felt “as if I saw God on his throne, and all his angels around him.”

Or maybe it was just something he ate. [pg. 3]

Here on why Handel’s Messiah became more popular after it was performed as a charity fundraiser.

Audiences like to feel that, if they were going to hear something blasphemous, at least they were doing it for a good cause. [pg. 70]

Barber says, “But even in the 19th century there were a few courageous people complaining that Messiah was becoming too bloated and reverential for its own good.” [pg. 85] Barber then goes on to quote George Bernard Shaw’s opinion on the subject.

“I have long since recognized the impossibility of obtaining justice for that work in a Christian country,” playwright and music critic George Bernard Shaw wrote in a newspaper review in 1891. (Shaw, by the way, was a great admirer of Handel, and considered Messiah his favorite oratorio.) The problem, as Shaw saw it, was that everyone sang the work far too much in earnest, in the “churchgoing mood” of “pure abstract reverence.”

What the work really needs, says Shaw, is a little wild abandon. “Import a choir of heathens,” he writes, “restrained by no considerations of propriety from attacking the choruses with unembarrassed sincerity of dramatic expression, and I would hasten to the performance if only to witness the delight of the public and discomfiture of the critics.” [pgs. 85-86]

Barber addresses several licentious situations with the freedom and irreverence which he uses in other situations. Nothing is outright stated, but it is hinted around and joked about. I would probably blot out these parts if I allowed my children to read the book at all.

One illustration was drawn for the tag-line “There are those who think Messiah has been done to death”. It depicts three skeletons singing Messiah.

‘Darn’ and ‘heck’ are each used once.

Conclusion. A very informative account, but one which is inclined towards mockery. I would only recommend Getting a Handel on Messiah to older students of music who have been trained to take what they read with a mound of salt.

O Worship the King

Title:  O Worship the King
Author: Joni Eareckson Tada, John MacArthur, Robert & Bobbie Wolgemuth
Pages:  126
Star Rating: ★★★

Hi there! As of October 2013, I have upgraded to a new site – The Blithering Bookster – where I have posted all of my old reviews and continue to post new ones. Hoist yourself over to join the fun!


Written as the companion guide for a CD of popular hymns, this book provides real historical insight as well as interesting Scriptural interpretation of twelve hymns. Each hymn is given a chapter: first comes the hymn’s text which is followed by a short life application called ‘At the Heart of the Hymn’. After this is a theological evaluation of the hymn called ‘In Light of the Word’ and a brief history of the author called ‘From Out Of the Past’. I appreciated the consistent format because I knew what I could expect from each chapter.

Although there are many interesting facts recorded in these pages, two particularly stood out to me. The first concerned the colossal hymn ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’. If you’ve ever sung this song you know it to be a proclamation of the awesome power of God and the utter inability of the hosts of hell to triumph over His kingdom. As such (if you’re focusing more on the music than the words), the last line of the first verse – “On earth is not his equal” – may seem to refer to God. I always thought it did! However, after reading this book, I have learned that this is not the case. The two lines immediately preceding – “For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe; his craft and power are great; and armed with cruel hate,” – indicate that it is in fact not Christ but the Devil being spoken of here! For some reason, I had never caught that. But this understanding adds a whole depth of beauty to ‘the man of God’s own choosing’ who is not only Satan’s equal, but his superior and defeated him on Calvary.

The second concerned the hymn ‘It Is Well with My Soul’. I was already familiar with the story of Horatio G. Spafford, the author of the lyrics. I knew that he wrote these words as he journeyed above the site of the tragic sea accident in which all four of his daughters were killed. But I did not know that just months before that tragedy his only son had died and his real estate investments had been utterly destroyed in The Great Chicago Fire. Every time I sing this song I think,“How was he able to live through these horrible bereavements and still say ‘It is well with my soul!’?” He tells us how in the third verse.

‘My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!’

This was the only reason that he was able to survive the loss of his five children – Christ’s all-redeeming love and the reassurance that flows from it. This is the only true consolation for grief. And it was this consolation working in the heart of Horatio G. Spafford that gave us this glorious hymn.