Crucified (Holy Week, Good Friday)

Posted on: 9 April 2020, by :

For Good Friday. This is the sixth post in a series for Holy Week and Easter Day, 2020.

In Messiah, the significance of the crucifixion — from the ‘us’ perspective, for all people — is anticipated in powerful, anthem-like choruses using Isaiah’s words: Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows … and with his stripes we are healed. But for constructing a scene that turns our focus instead on to Jesus’s own agony on the cross, in his moments before death, Jennens adapted verses from the Psalms:

All they that see him laugh him to scorn:
they shoot out their lips, and shake their heads, saying
“He trusted in God, that he would deliver him:
let him deliver him, if he delight in him!”
(Psalm 22:7-8)

Thy rebuke hath broken his heart; he is full of heaviness:
he looked for some to have pity on him, but there was no man,
neither found he any to comfort him.
(Psalm 69:20)

Handel designed the music for the scene as if he were setting a Passion text (like those set by Bach mentioned in earlier posts). Since the first sentence reads like narration, it becomes narration, telling us of the bystanders who jeer at Jesus hanging on the cross. Then we hear what they say: the choir must become the bystanders themselves, spitting out their cruel, sarcastic taunts, challenging God to save him. He trusted in God is a fugue, a complex type of delivery that fits the notion of a disorganized crowd, an angry rabble.

Thy rebuke hath broken his heart is a recitative, a type of non-lyrical musical setting typically used for narration, enhanced in this case with sustained chords from the stringed instruments that seem to create a shimmering unrealness. Time seems to stand still in uneasiness; the strange shifts in harmony drift and hang with a disorienting and queasy sense. Normally a recitative never ever repeats any of its text, but in this case Handel chose to repeat some of the words in order to accommodate more harmonic twists. It allows the music more time to get to us, so that we feel something of Jesus’s despair and loneliness and being forsaken.

A performance from August 2011 in the abbey of Saint-Robert in La Chaise-Dieu by the Prague-based Collegium 1704, directed by Václav Luks. The complete performance is here.

Thy rebuke hath broken his heart in the original Dublin version, for soprano. Dunedin Consort and Players, directed by John Butt: a CD recording made in 2007.

With Thy rebuke, Handel’s music in 1742 created a moment of awesome empathy with the suffering and dying Christ that has never left us since, one that reaches the parts of people’s hearts that liturgies and Christian art rarely reach. This is literally true, because, for dramatic purposes and with poetic license, Jennens had tweaked the Scripture, inventing a new and powerful gloss on theology that does not exist elsewhere: he had changed the Psalm texts (drawn from the Coverdale translation) from the first person ‘my/I/me’ (All they that see me … hath broken my heart; I am full of heaviness, etc.) to ‘his/he/him’ to make them agree with the ‘he’ of the prophecies by Isaiah positioned earlier in the Passion sequence. In that way, Jennens and Handel force us to be bystanders too, there in the scene.