Through Advent With The Apocalypse: 17/12 – (19) Praise and Triumph in Messiah

This Advent, in the Year of the Great Pandemic 2020, it seems appropriate to look at The Apocalypse – that is, The Revelation of John. This is the nineteenth of twenty-six short reflections.

The Foundling Hospital Chapel, in London, where Messiah was regularly performed from 1750 to 1759 under the direction of Handel himself, and subsequently, after his death, from the manuscript score which the composer bequeathed to the Hospital.

Yesterday I said I would look at how G. F. Handel (1685-1759) uses Revelation in his Messiah. I wrote that thinking that there were all kinds of passages from the Apocalypse in there, but when I actually looked at the libretto I found that, actually, there are only two of the 53 movements (recitatives, aria, and chorales) in it that are actually Revelation.

But look where they are, and what they are! The Messiah is divided into three parts; parts two and three both conclude with lines from Revelation, namely the Hallelujah Chorus, and Worthy is the Lamb.

44. Chorus
Hallelujah! for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
(Revelation 19 : 6)
The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign for ever and ever.
(Revelation 11 : 15)
King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.
(Revelation 19 : 16)

53. Chorus
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever. Amen.
(Revelation 5 : 12-13)

The videos above are both recent, the first being from a Austrian staged production in Vienna in 2009, and the latter from a concert in King’s College Chapel Cambridge sung by VOCES8 (I’m not sure how to pronounce that, either), with the VOCES8 Scholars and Apollo5, and the instruments of the Academy of Ancient Music.

Handel did not choose the texts, but rather, set a text to music. The English gentleman Charles Jennens (1700-1773) had previously worked with Handel, having supplied a libretto for Saul and possibly Israel in Egypt. Astonishingly, Handel set the whole thing to music in just twenty-four days – but apparently the musician always wrote that fast. That said, the speed concerned Jennens (pronounced “Jennings”) so much that he wrote Handel about the quality of the writing, and did not hesitate to suggest improvements. This led to a breach between the two for a short period, which was eventually patched up.

Jennens was an odd duck. While an active member of the Church of England, he was part of the Nonjurors, a group which felt that the Glorious Revolution of 1689 was nothing less than a repudiation of the oaths the political and ecclesiastical leadership had sworn to James II. Thus, despite the Stuarts being Catholic and pretenders to the thrones of Great Britain and Ireland, the Nonjurors supported them, feeling that the Divine Right of Kings had been challenged with James II overthrow. As he could not pledge fealty to the House of Hanover, Jennens could neither take a university degree or political office.

He was wealthy and theologically astute, having a large library of divinity at Gopsal Hall, his residence. He was also one of the most musically literate men in Britain, and his collection of musical texts was unparalleled. He patronized composers such as Handel, and became quite active in some of the works, as we have seen.

Messiah is in three parts. The Wikipedia article has a useful summary:

The oratorio’s structure follows the liturgical year:

Part I corresponding with Advent, Christmas, and the life of Jesus;

Part II with Lent, Easter, the Ascension, and Pentecost; and

Part III with the end of the church year—dealing with the end of time.

Revelation, then, is used to mark the triumph of Christ over death, and the quotations are not the apocalyptic passages about war in heaven or the beasts on earth, nor the fantastic images, but of the Lamb enthroned in heaven. They are doxological – praise choruses, if you will.

In the libretto Jennens’ agenda is the forceful assertion of Jesus as divine and as the Messiah, the Christ. He did this because of the rise in his day of Deism – the belief that there may be a God, who is indeed the Creator, but denies that Jesus was divine or the Son of God, or that there is such things as divine revelation or miracles. Deism, obviously, is a challenge to Christian orthodoxy, and both Handel and Jennens being orthodox Christians, felt the appropriateness of the fervent affirmations of Jesus as Christ in the piece. Jennens did not respond to Deism with logical arguments – that he left to theologians – but with the persuasion of familiar texts set to majestic music.

How does Revelation relate to other texts in the New Testament, and the whole idea of the end times? I’ll take that up tomorrow.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at
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