Friday, October 8, 2010

Old Testament Lesson #38 "Beside Me There is No Savior"

Isaiah 40-49

(If you have access to a recording of the Messiah, by Handel, play "Comfort Ye" as a prelude to the lesson.  It is about 3 minutes long.  You can buy individual mp3 tracks from the Messiah at Amazon for 99 cents each.  If you want to do the suggested conclusion activity, pass out hymnbooks to class members, or print up copies of the words to verses 3 through 5 of "How Firm a Foundation.")


Several of the beautiful verses from our lesson this week have been put to music.  The first three verses are the first recitative in Handel's Messiah, which we just listened to.  It is followed by another beautiful number written to the words of verses 4 and 5, "The Voice of Him That Crieth in the Wilderness."  Later in the oratorio, verse 11 can be heard, "He Shall Feed His Flock."  The most wonderful way to study this lesson might be to just sit down and listen to the Messiah together, but instead we will study a bit about the composer of this magnificent music of worship, because it is a perfect complement to the lesson topic.


George Frederick Handel was born in Germany in 1685, and was a contemporary of the other great religious composer, Johann Sebastian Bach.  They lived very near each other, but never managed to meet.  Handel was a brilliant composer, but he struggled financially.  He was perhaps too generous with his money, and not quite thrifty enough.  He was a modest man, and did not think himself a great talent.  A friend commented to Handel on how rotten the music was at a concert he had recently heard, not knowing it was Handel's music, and Handel, unoffended, replied, "You are right, sir; it is pretty poor stuff.  I thought so myself when I wrote it" (Kavanaugh, p. 31). 

Handel was not a perfect man, but he was a good man.  He "was reputed to swear in several languages when moved to wrath (usually by singers).  At the same time, he was equally quick to admit his own fault and apologize."  His morals were above reproach.  One friend, Sir John Hawkins wrote that Handel "throughout his life manifested a deep sense of religion.  In conversation he would frequently declare the pleasure he felt in setting the Scriptures to music, and how contemplating the many sublime passages in the Psalms had contributed to his edification" (p. 31-32).

Handel liked to compose music that had a religious text, for performance in secular theaters.  Possibly, being a German Lutheran living in Church of England territory (he spent most of his life in London), he liked the idea of non-denominational musical performances.  He wrote a drama called Esther and another called Israel in Egypt, which were both performed in the theater rather than the cathedral.  This really rubbed a lot of church leaders the wrong way.  The Church of England openly criticized him for this.  Even after the Messiah was well-known, John Newton, the composer of "Amazing Grace," preached every Sunday for over a year against its being performed publicly, rather than solely in church (p. 33).  Had it been performed only in church, however, its influence would not have been as great, as we will soon see.

Handel donated freely to charities, even when he himself was facing financial ruin.  He was a relentless optimist, and a scriptorian.  (Perhaps those two traits often go together.)  He was a bachelor with no family to support, yet he struggled to make enough money to support himself.  At one point in his life, the spring of 1741, at the age of 56, he was "swimming in debt [and] it seemed certain he would land in debtor's prison" (p. 29).

Then two providential things happened concurrently that changed the course of religious music forever, as well as the lives of many individuals throughout the centuries since.  The first thing was that Handel's friend, Charles Jennens, gave him a libretto he had put together. (A libretto is the term for the lyrics of a large musical work.)  It was based on the life of Christ and taken entirely from the Bible.  The second thing was that Handel received a commission from a Dublin charity to compose a work for a benefit performance.  Handel put the two opportunities together and on August 22, 1741, he set to work composing another religious piece that would be performed in a secular venue.  He became so absorbed in the work that he rarely left his room, and never left his house.  "In six days part one was complete.  In nine days more he had finished part two, and in another six, part three.  The orchestration was completed in another two days.  In all, 260 pages of manuscript were filled in the remarkably short time of 24 days."  He borrowed bits of musical themes here and there from works he had written or heard previously, as did most composers in that day, and combined them with new melodies and beautiful instrumentation.  He edited and rearranged a little as years went by, but not to any great degree.  The Messiah we have today is very close to the original 24-day masterpiece.  One biographer, Sir Newman Flower, said, "Considering the immensity of the work, and the short time involved, it will remain, perhaps forever, the greatest feat in the whole history of music composition" (p. 30).

The composing of the Messiah was an intensely spiritual experience for Handel.  At one point while he was working, a servant entering the room to bring food found him with tears streaming down his face.  Handel cried out to him, "I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself" (p. 27).  He had just finished the piece now known as the "Hallelujah Chorus."  Another friend who stopped to visit found him sobbing with intense emotion.  Later Handel tried to explain himself and said, "Whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote it, I know not" (p. 30).

The Messiah premiered on April 13, 1742 in Dublin.  It was a benefit concert, as planned.  The Messiah, which was written to praise the Savior who freed us all from our fallen state, raised that day 400 pounds which freed 142 men from debtor's prison.  Handel conducted over thirty more performances of the Messiah in his life.  Many of these were also benefit concerts, with the money going to the Foundling Hospital, of which Handel was a major contributor.  Because the performances were in theaters for pay, rather than in churches, they could bring in money to relieve suffering.  "One biographer wrote: 'Messiah has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan...more than any other single musical production in this or any country.'  Another wrote, 'Perhaps the works of no other composer have so largely contributed to the relief of human suffering'" (p. 31).

"After the first London performance of the Messiah, Lord Kinnoul congratulated Handel on the "excellent entertainment."  Handel replied, 'My Lord, I should be sorry if I only entertain them.  I wish to make them better.'"  Handel's Messiah has indeed made people better.  In one writer's opinion, the Messiah "has probably done more to convince thousands of mankind that there is a God about us than all the theological works ever written" (p. 31).

Handel died 18 years after composing the Messiah.  It was a Saturday, April 14, 1759, the day before Easter, coincidentally the time of year that Messiah was performed most in those days.  Handel had conducted his final performance of the work eight days earlier.  His close friend, James Smith, wrote, "He died as he lived--a good Christian, with a true sense of his duty to God and to man, and a perfect charity with all the world."  Over 3,000 people attended the funeral.  A statue was erected in Westminster Abbey where he was buried.  It depicts Handel holding the manuscript of the Messiah, open to part three, "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth."  It was an appropriate tribute to a great man of faith, whose knowledge of his Savior was built through study of scripture, teaching truth to others through the medium of music, and living the gospel through his charitable works.


We all know that we will have trials, and at those times, it may be hard to remember that God is there for us, as Handel and Jennens taught in their Messiah.  Isaiah is a great reservoir of emergency spiritual nourishment.  (Teachers may want to encourage class members to get our their red pencils and underline as you read together, so that their "spiritual food storage" is easy to find later when their spirits are low.  Ask class members to share their favorites from Isaiah, and add your own.  Remember that the Spirit is manifest more when class members share their testimonies, even in one-sentence bits, than when they sit passively and listen to a lecture.  Write the verses on the board as they are shared.  Some ideas follow, to get the ball rolling.)


Isaiah 40:31--"They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint."
How does this principle work?  Does it seem sometimes like trying to obey the commandments and fulfill your church callings and do family night and family prayer and compassionate service and eat right and live within your budget and strengthen your marriage and all that stuff can be pretty draining, pretty stressful?  The key to the principle of the renewal of strength lies in the phrase, "they that wait upon the Lord."  "Waiting upon the Lord" refers to exercising faith and hope in Christ and His guidance and timetable.  When our actions are not just grudgingly obeying commandments, but doing so "in faith," while "waiting upon the Lord," everything shifts.  While despair and discouragement drain energy and cast out the Spirit, hope and faith in Christ build energy and bring the Spirit.  They allow us to "mount up with wings as eagles," and to "run and not be weary."

Here are some ideas for shifting from "stressed-out in the service of the Lord," to "renewing your strength," in other words, changing from a state of anxiety to one of  joy and peace.

1) Stop and pray for help with your feelings.  Thank the Lord for the blessing of being entrusted with the role that is giving you stress (mother, bishop, visiting teacher, compassionate service director, etc.)

2) Look ahead at what needs to be done, pick the most important task (or the one with the most immediate deadline) and focus only on that project for a set amount of time.

3) Think about the people you are doing the work for and how it will bless them, rather than how bad you will look or how anxious you will feel if it isn't completed well and on time.

4) Trust in the Lord, that if the task is truly important, He will help you get it done, and help you do it well.

(Some other beautiful verses to examine, if the class doesn't come up with their own, include: 40:11 [shepherd], 40:29 [power], 41:17 [water], 42:16 [blindfold], 44:3-4 [water], 44:21-22 [Atonement], 46:4 [support through life], 49:15 [loved as a newborn], and 49:16 [Christ's hands].  A note on 49:15-16:  A nursing mother's body will not allow her to forget to feed her baby, no matter how careless she may be--ask any new mother who has left her baby with a sitter for several hours!  She'll be in misery by the time she returns.  Christ's body, also, will remind him, as he repeatedly sees the scars on his hands, that he is our Father, that his role is to nurture us.  It will be impossible for him to forget his children.)


"[George Frederick] Handel refused to be deterred by setbacks, [critics], illnesses, or even severe financial woes.  It is a tribute to the faith and optimism Handel possessed, relying on God as he worked to overcome significant obstacles and to create music that is universally cherished today" (p. 33).  It was undoubtedly his intimate working knowledge of the scriptures that allowed him to persevere and succeed in unfolding God's mission for his life.  It would be well with each of us if we could live and die as Handel did, becoming acquainted with the words of our God, and then using our personal talents, our resources, the guidance of the Spirit, and the opportunities that arise around us, to emulate Christ and bring his gospel of love into the lives of others, particularly those who are not found within the walls of the church-house.

(As a class, sing together Isaiah's words from 41:10, and 43:2 or have a class member who is a vocalist sing them.  These are found in our hymn, "How Firm a Foundation," verses 3-5.  As a postlude, play a recording of "He Shall Feed His Flock.")


Source:  Patrick Kavanaugh, Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, p. 27-33

For a wonderful fictionalized account of Handel's life and his great work, the Messiah, I strongly recommend the book Hallelujah, by Scott Featherstone.  (Yes, his father's name is Vaughan J.)


Susan said...

As usual, you outdo yourself with each blog post. What a beautiful comparison. I really enjoy each of your postings.
Thank you for all the time you spend putting this together.


Thank you..... YOU are wonderful.

Aleisa said...

I appreciate your thoughts and ideas, they are a great resource for my own lessons. Thank you

Jody said...

This is beautiful. Thank you.