Evidence Enough

19 01 2007

Most people are familiar with at least part of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah, but few people have heard of (let alone actually listened to) the Messiah‘s finale – Worthy is the Lamb (HWV 56). It is one of those few pieces that leaves me convinced that I have seen eternity…and God is there.

I would prefer to be as professional as possible and give you a description of the work from the score itself, but as I don’t have that (yet), we’ll just have to go for the layman’s approach – using the track. I use the track from Laserlight’s Classical Christmas, with the RIAS Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Marcus Creed. If you would like to hear the track, email me so that I can send it to you. The file is 4-7 MB, so make sure your email provider can handle it.

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The very first sound you hear on the track is the organ, giving out the chord needed (presumbably) to give the choir its proper pitch. Then the choir comes in with the words “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain and hath redeemed us to God by His blood,”, reinforced by the strings and the strident tones of a single trumpet. A funny thing, this single trumpet – its unmistakable tone gives the music at this point a “lonely nobility”, if you will; like when you break away from your circle of friends for a quiet walk during which you contemplate something deep and worthy.

The rhythm of the piece picks up a little as the choir then sings, “to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing.” You then here the organ chord again, and the whole thing repeats.

Then the basses begin an elaborate call-and-response motif built around the lyrics, “Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever.” Voice after voice enters at different times, accompanied here by strings, there by timpani. It paints a picture (in my mind) of a hiker, making his way up the last few feet to the top of a mountain, the excitement building as he anticipates the view that awaits him at the summit.

I appreciate how restrained Handel writes for the timpani; he doesn’t give in to “modern” tendency to really pour on the percussion. Instead, he uses them like exclamation points to sentences; like peals of thunder that occur just enough times for you to realize that a big empyrean2.jpgstorm is on its way, but not too-many times to send you screaming for mommy. Again, we hear the lonely trumpet as our hiker gets closer to his summit, resolutely putting one foot in front of the other, convinced that he must make it to the top for his life to have any meaning. The chorus sings out “Forever” again and again, gaining in momentum, and finally pausing on an irresolute chord – as if our hiker has made it to the top of the mountain…and sees something he wasn’t expecting. Not in a million years.

At 3:31 in the track, the basses begin the first of a series of heartbreaking amens – then woodengrvngdorepardiso.jpgfollowed by the tenors. Then the basses drop out for a moment as the altos enter, only to join them in a last “Amen” together with the sopranos before all the voices drop out and let the strings have a little solo. For our hiker, it’s like watching angels ascend into the sky along shafts of golden light; first one, then another, then another, then another. There he stands, his hair standing on end, watching as these four angels climb upward, when suddenly, the choir breaks forth in another set of amens and the whole sky is full of angels, all on individual shafts of light.

Another image that comes to mind is from Dante’s Paradiso, as Dante and Beatrice ascend through the spheres of heaven and finally come upon the pinnacle of all delight and pleasure that the human mind cannot conceive and the human body cannot experienec – The Empyrean; The sphere where God Himself resides. Indeed, in the final moments of the piece (as the sopranos sing a high, descending “amen”), I am convinced that for a moment, I am before the Gates of Heaven itself and the gates open a crack and a piercing, blinding light breaks forth and there is only one human word that comes close to describing what I am seeing: glory. I cannot sit and listen to this piece and not break into tears – the glory of God made into song is too great; too great for my human heart and mind and lachrymal glands to bear.

…and I wonder: How can such music, such praise, exist here on Earth and there be no God to whom it can be directed to? How can whole choirs and orchestras play this music, and not be convinced that such music can only come straight from heaven? I would hate to over-romanticize it, but I must say that for me, this music is evidence enough.

The Empyrean

 

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