Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Handel Meets Shakespeare Meets Jesus Christ

Recently I had the wonderful experience of attending the Dallas Symphony Chorus’ dress rehearsal for Handel’s Messiah. Seeing and hearing the work in a practice-setting provided not only unique insight into the behind-the-scenes antics of a brilliant conductor and the strenuous discipline of expert musicians, but also a cost-free ($5.00 parking) opportunity to enrich my soul and mind through the transcendent power and authority of great art. But of course Messiah is more than great art—it is worship, and whatever the aesthetic power of Messiah, its liturgical power is greater. But what really makes Messiah so spiritually potent?

Is it the music?

I am no expert in music, much less classical music, but I have listened to classical music almost every day for over two decades; that at least gives me a snippet of credibility regarding what is good, better, or best in classical music. Perhaps what I have to say falls within the plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face category, but I have no qualms in asserting that Handel falls short of the glory of Mozart and Beethoven; in fact Handel’s music, even Messiah, only remotely approaches the emotional complexity, tonal splendor, aesthetic power, and innovative creativity of Debussy, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, or Bach. Handel may be a star but he is only a lesser orb in the symphonic galaxy, albeit with a divine radiance that brightens his artistic gift. However, as I watched and listened to Messiah last evening, another aesthetic revelation dawned upon me (actually it didn’t dawn upon me but its light was newly rekindled upon my soul’s horizons)—the inferiority of music to rhetoric.

After all, God did not say, “In the beginning was the music,” did He?

No, what makes Handel’s Messiah so powerful is not the music but “the Word.” Now please do not expect a full discourse on the aesthetic supremacy of poetry over music (although that is a fact) much less a diatribe about the power of God’s word blended with classical music, despite the critical relevance of that topic to the pedantic and mundane tastes of contemporary worship! Besides, such a lofty aim is far beyond the space and time I can sacrifice to this brief essay, and thus I lower my sights to a less complex but certainly important topic—Handel’s music expressed through biblical language in Shakespearean style.

Now think about this—the person unfamiliar with the Shakespearian verbiage is at a distinct disadvantage to appreciate Handel’s Messiah. Not only does the archaic phrasing inhibit the uninitiated ear from swiftly apprehending key biblical references in Messiah—

O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain.
O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength;
lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, behold your God!
O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, Arise, shine, for thy Light is come,
and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.

–even worse, contemporary ignorance of Shakespearian phrasing diminishes our ability to comprehend Messiah’s meaning—

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her,
that her warfare is accomplish'd, that her Iniquity is pardoned.
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

How can we catch the message if we don’t understand the pitch? One should not jump to the conclusion that I am defending the manuscriptal superiority of the KJV—oh, prithee, constrain thyself from such lascivious imaginations—but I am nonetheless attempting another kind of KJV defense, an aesthetic one.

Surely no one can argue against the fact that the Shakespearian English of the KJV represents the most elegant diction in the history of the English language. After all, isn’t the Bard himself the pinnacle and prototype of rhetorical excellence? How, then, except through our own literary ignorance and linguistic laziness, could we prefer the “simpler” and “clearer” modern biblical translations that seek to accommodate the pedestrian language of contemporary “culture”? Just because Shakespeare may be unpalatable to the modern tongue and unpleasant to the contemporary ear, should we then throw the Bard out on his “arse”? The following scenario should make us laugh and wince at once—

Handel without the beauty of Shakespeare!

Imagine the reaction of the culturally informed if the following ad appeared in the Morning News:

In response to popular taste, the Dallas Symphony Chorus,
under the direction of Buford Samples,
has written a contemporary adaptation of Handel’s Messiah,
stripping away the archaic and irrelevant language of the King James Version Bible
and modernizing its message with blended (and bland) wording from
the NIV, NASB, The Message, Living Bible, and Cotton Patch Gospel.

Of course the only thing louder than the outcry would be the laughter, and God pity the reputation and credibility of the poor buffoon who would undertake such an aesthetic affront . . . he might as well take a pocket knife to Monet or Renoir.

But the issue is not merely one of the aesthetic superiority of Shakespearian English—it is also an issue of cultural orientation and aesthetic sensibility. After all, it’s not just Handel who refers to the KJV. Consider this list—Milton, Bunyan, Donne, Blake, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelly, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Coleridge, Joyce, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Irving, Cooper, Melville, Faulkner, James, Conrad, Twain, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Yeats, Lewis, Pound, and Eliot—and those are just a few of the classical writers! Get the point?—

By depriving ourselves, our children, our students, and our contemporary Christian culture of Shakespeare’s English biblically expressed in the King James Version, we are in fact unwittingly depreciating our aesthetic sensibility to recognize classical references to biblical language, thus diminishing our intellectual capacity to appreciate and understand biblical concepts within the texts, canvases, and scores of classical literature, art, and music.
So the next time your child opens the Bible, ask yourself,

“What are the odds that, two hundred years from now, great art, great music, great literature will be directly quoting the Bible translation my child is reading?”

“Is my child reading a Bible translation that will heighten his appreciation
of complex language?”

“Is my child reading a Bible that will enhance or diminish his ability
to recognize biblical references in classic works of art, literature, or music?”

Or perhaps this simple question would be sufficient to make our point?

“Is my child reading a Bible that will show him
where Handel meets Shakespeare meets Jesus, the Messiah?”

Alas, methinketh thou knowest the answer!

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