Jesus alone (Holy Week, Wednesday)

Posted on: 7 April 2020, by :

For Wednesday of Holy Week. This is the fourth post in a series for Holy Week and Easter Day, 2020.

Isaiah 53:3: He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
Isaiah 50:6: He gave his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: he hid not his face from shame and spitting.

These major Messianic prophesies from the Old-Testament prophet Isaiah are familiar to many people worldwide. Christians hear them annually during Holy Week, in readings and sermons. Many music-lovers and musicians, whether believers or not, will also be familiar with them from performances of this movement in the most popular oratorio of all time, Messiah.

Far less familiar today are the reasons why Handel set these texts in the way that he did. This is opera — or at least the closest to opera that Messiah ever gets. It is a virtuosic aria of the kind Handel often composed for his staged operas. It has the typical three-part aria structure (sections ABA, where A is repeated with improvised embellishment) which Jennens, the librettist, engineered by inserting a verse from Isaiah 50 up against a verse from chapter 53. Its melody and pacing even conform to a particular technical type that the Italians called the aria di portamento, requiring the beautiful singing of held notes. Not many professional singers ever manage this aria as successfully as Reginald Mobley and Clare Wilkinson in these two superb performances.

The ability of particular singers is important, for the whole rationale of this piece depends almost exclusively on their skill. In an actual opera, an aria like this would be a soliloquy, staged as a tableau: it simply doesn’t work if the singer is weak in appropriate musical expression or acting ability. The character is alone, deep in his or her own thoughts, expressing, through the aria, his or her emotional responses to the situation at that point in the drama, typically a perilous one. In opera, too, the audience looks on, expecting to be moved by witnessing the character’s predicament and response (in amazing singing). In Messiah, solo singers do not act out particular roles, but in this case the vocal part does bring to life the anticipated trials and agony to be suffered by the ‘he’ about whom Isaiah prophesied. And we are the spectators, looking on.

Reginald L. Mobley singing with the Bach Collegium of San Diego, in 2014.

Clare Wilkinson with the Dunedin Consort and Players, directed by John Butt: a CD recording made in 2007.

Interpreting the volatile B-section (from ‘He gave his back to the smiters’) is easy: we get that the Messiah (i.e. Jesus, for Christians) will be beaten up and dreadfully tortured, and that he will submit himself to that shaming abuse and violence and not hide from it. The long A-section is more challenging, for in many places the music evokes serenity, peacefulness and even warmth, rather than notions of ‘despised’ and ‘rejected’. But there is one episode in the Passion story where it makes total sense: the scene when Jesus goes with his friends to the garden of Gethsemane to pray, in the hours just before his arrest. We visualize the scene … He is alone with his thoughts and feeling alone (the friends, whose company he needs, have fallen asleep). He is deeply troubled, with thoughts about death. He is not at peace despite the peacefulness of the garden on a warm night, because he knows what he must soon face. He prays to his father for strength and guidance, but shows fear. He becomes so sorrowful that he even prostrates himself, asking his father to spare him from the ordeal to come. We, the spectators, recognize his emotional reactions and momentary weakness as entirely natural and human, and it moves us: he is just like us. Almost every time the words ‘acquainted with grief’ are sung, the music twists to something dark and threatening, like the sudden onset of cold fear.

Every year we revisit this scene during Holy Week, but this year, in April 2020, it seems more poignant and relevant than ever. We are social-distancing and self-isolating: in this growing health crisis everyone will sometimes be alone in their individual thoughts. We are troubled at the news and wonder about the possibility of our own death and the death of our loved ones: it’s very hard to be at peace right now, and we fear what may lie ahead. We reach out to family, friends and online contacts, but some are physically alone or will feel lonely and vulnerable in their isolation. We stay busy and get on with what we have to do and like to do; some of us even have a lovely garden to be in. But still the sudden fearful thoughts come. Like Jesus did, Christians try to remember to seek strength from the Father. Those who are not believers are also finding their strength, even a new kind of strength, in the love that they are giving in supporting their neighbours and communities.