Book Review – Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People

I have always enjoyed listening to the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah.  Unfortunately, the extent of my knowledge of Handel’s entire classic piece has been very limited.  I can’t recall having ever listened to the entire work, much less having known anything about its background.  I’ve enjoyed listening to Calvin Stapert’s book, Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People in which Stapert takes us through a brief biographical sketch of Handel’s history.  Stapert also includes a history of the “oratorio” (a term that up until I read this book was completely unknown to me) style of music and how Handel introduced – or rather invented – the English oratorio.  Stapert goes over each piece of Messiah touching on several theological points including the anticipation of the Messiah and the culmination of redemption in Christ.

In listening to this book, I learned quite a number of things.  One was how the style of the oratorio differed from operas and what effect this had on the Messiah.  I found it interesting that the oratorio style of music did not even exist in England before Handel “due to Puritan opposition during a critical time in opera’s development elsewhere” – interesting because we see similar oppositional mentalities to various musical types and genres in some Christian circles even today.  Handel recognized the merit of music as art, but also wanted to do more than entertain.  As Stapert puts it “It does not reject entertainment as the goal.  It rejects it as the only goal.”

Perhaps the best part of the book was Stapert’s walking the reader through the story of redemption, progressing through Scripture’s recognition of a need of a Messiah, the anticipation of the Messiah’s coming, his arrival, his death and resurrection, and the promise of his return.  The notes on how the musical styles and variations underscored the lyrics of each piece was also very interesting.

While the book itself was very interesting, the narrator (James Adams) of the audio book from Christianaudio made me feel like I was in some kind of music literature class taught by a professor who deemed himself just above the task.  While Adams’ narration is perfectly pronounced, with dramatic pauses and inflections at just the right places, it holds none of the “Comfort” of Handel’s work, but felt rather cold and distant.  I didn’t hear the literary voice of the author in the reading so much as the art museum dryness of the narrator’s own voice.

Although the audio version from Christianaudio contains a few selections from Handel’s Messiah, the selections are comparatively few.  I found it much more helpful to find and listen to the entire work, pausing the audiobook after each section to listen to the piece just discussed and then proceed with the next.  I would recommend purchasing the actual book along with a full album of Handel’s Messiah instead of sitting through the droning of Adams’ narration.

(Thanks to Christianaudio for providing a free review copy of the audio version of this book.)

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