J.S. Bach

What explains the durable popularity of Handel’s 'Messiah' (especially at Christmas)?

What explains the durable popularity of Handel’s 'Messiah' (especially at Christmas)?

THE QUESTION: Handel’s oratorio “Messiah” — the Easter cantata that is so frequently heard at Christmastime — is probably the most-performed and most-beloved piece of great music ever written. What explains this long-running appeal?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Underlying this theme is the poignant reality that our culture and many of its churches are gradually losing historical moorings that include the excellent fine arts created in former times. So how and why does “Messiah,” which exemplifies the “classical” musical style and faith of 276 years ago, so hold its own today?

By most estimates, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) does not quite equal a peerless fellow German composer and a contemporary he never met, J.S. Bach (1685-1750). But in terms of popularity and number of performances, not to mention seasonal sing-alongs, this one among Handel’s 30 oratorios overshadows Bach’s monumental Christian works such as the “Christmas Oratorio,” “Mass in B Minor,” “St. John Passion” and “St. Matthew “Passion.”

Handel biographer Jonathan Keates tells the remarkable story of the famed oratorio in his 2017 book “Messiah: The Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece” — a good gift suggestion.

In a fit of inspiration, Handel dashed off all of his oratorio’s 53 sections in just three weeks. (Of course tunesmith Bach was expected to turn out a new choral number almost every week.) The first performance in the Easter season of 1742 — in Dublin, Ireland, instead of England — was a triumph.

The London premiere the following March is remembered because King George II stood during the “Hallelujah Chorus” and was imitated by the audience. Listeners have done the same ever since, a tribute normally limited to patriotic anthems. George never officially explained his deed. But it has always been assumed he believed a Christian king should express obeisance to the eternal “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” per the text sung from the Book of Revelation.

There was some trouble with the London gig.

Bluenoses thought it faintly blasphemous that a Christian oratorio was being performed in the secular Covent Garden theater instead of a church.

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A larger story behind the headlines: Why people keep fighting about Amy Grant's music

A larger story behind the headlines: Why people keep fighting about Amy Grant's music

So why do people, decade after decade, keep arguing about the music and life of Amy Grant?

To understand these news stories, it really helps to connect them to other headlines linked to religious believers whose talents allow them to work in mainstream culture. Think about all those debates about the lives of Christian football players, such as Tim Tebow and Russell Wilson. Think about what happens when religious believers, left and right, produce bestselling novels. Think about all those news stories about what is and what is not a "Christian" film. Do the Christians who work at Pixar (and they are part of the mix) make "Christian" movies?

But if you really want to understand this week's Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in), then I'd like you to take part in a little exercise that I have used for more than a decade in lectures on faith and popular culture.

Step 1: Watch the video at the top of this post, which is Faith Hill's stunning performance of "There Will Come A Day" during the "Tribute to Heroes" special a week after 9/11, a fundraising effort that was carried on just about every single television channel in existence.

Step 2: Now read the lyrics to this song, especially the triumphant final verse and chorus:

There's a better place, Where our Father waits, and every tear, He'll wipe away
The darkness will be gone, the weak shall be strong
Hold on to your faith, there will come a day ...

Song will ring out, down those golden streets
The voices of earth, the angels will sing
Every knee will bow, sin will have no trace
In the glory of His amazing grace ...
There will come a day ... I know there's coming a day

Step 3: Now ask yourself this question: Is this a "Christian" song, in terms of the marketplace of American music? That leads to another question: Is Faith Hill a "Christian" artist, in terms of the marketplace of American music?

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