Since by Man came Death from “Messiah” part III no 46 Handel (1685-1759)

This article first appeared in the April 2016 issue of our parish magazine.

I discovered late in 2015 that I don’t know Handel’s “Messiah” anything like as well as I thought I did. “Since by Man came Death” was included in the Halle Academy repertoire during autumn 2015, but our photocopied sheets were not obviously labelled as being from “Messiah”. The text is drawn from 1 Corinthians 15:21–22, in which Paul writes about the Resurrection:

  • Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.
  • For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

The notes are not particularly difficult, but the timing is quite surprising. The photocopied extracts  we were using (copyright free, from free-scores.com) had no indication at all about the speed of the piece. It soon became blindingly obvious which singers watched the conductor and which didn’t, because in a ‘proper’ score, the first half of each line is marked “grave”, which is Italian for very, very slow, and the second half “allegro”, or very fast! Care is required with diction as there is a strong risk of the opening words becoming ‘sin spy man…’ or ‘sins pie man…’!

Those tempos suit the text extraordinarily well. Clearly, the first phrase of the first line is about Good Friday and the second is about Easter Day: Jesus could not possibly rise from death without first dying – at the hands of men. The second line states the fundamental principle of Christian faith. The “grave” sections are about death and dying and the pace is appropriately funereal. The “allegro” sections are about the resurrection and promise of eternal life. They are joyous, and this is emphasised by the speed.

The alternating pace of the music echoes the emotional changes we experience in our spiritual journey through Lent and Holy Week:

Lent is a time of self-denial, self-examination and preparation.

Palm Sunday is celebratory – the Servant King enters Jerusalem triumphantly, but also meekly, on a donkey. Note also that circle is squared here with Mary’s journey into Bethlehem on the back of a donkey, not in triumph, but cold, exhausted, probably frightened, and about to give birth.

Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Saturday are desperately sad times, liberally laced also with betrayal, pain, suffering, humiliation and death.

Easter Day is of course joyful, full of hope and the promise of everlasting life.

You can enjoy listening to the Royal Choral Society singing “Since by Man Came Death” here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tViHs7MeTk

Easter week is a traumatic series of spiritual highs and lows. I hope you experience everything you wish to this Easter.

Carol P


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