Calvin R. Stapert
Reviewed by: Timothy Shafer
Date posted: 12/25/2011
Handel's Messiah: Comfort for God's People, by Calvin R. Stapert. Published by Eerdmans, 2010. Paperback, 192 pages, list price $14.99. Reviewed by OPC member and music professor Timothy Shafer.
Calvin Stapert, in his book Handel's Messiah: Comfort for God's People, claims not to be attempting to explain the phenomenal popularity of Handel's Messiah over the centuries, but rather simply to offer some information, explanation, and interpretation that might enhance appreciation for it. That he does.
Stapert divides his rich book into three sections. The first section traces the confluence of three different histories that led to the composition of Messiah: the history of the oratorio up to Messiah, the history of Handel up to Messiah, and the history of Messiah's inception and reception. The short second section deals with what it was that Messiah was intended to be as a work of art. The final, most lengthy section of the book is reserved for examining the text and music—providing insights into the theology of the texts and the manner in which Handel's music treats those texts.
Stapert has managed, in the history portion of the book, to do an excellent job with the monumental task of summarizing the development of the oratorio in Italy, Germany, and England, and does so without using unnecessary jargon. He provides adequate examples to demonstrate his points, and keeps the reader engaged with descriptive accounts of biblical narratives that were set to music in the early days of the genre. He also gives a compelling account of Handel's early days and of his move to London, where he was to practice the art of setting the English language to music and ultimately to have his energies turned from opera to oratorio—and ultimately to Messiah.
Stapert's discussion of Handel's purpose in the composition of Messiah is fascinating and highly relevant for our times. Entertainment, art, music, and morality are considered within the context of Handel's alleged statement, "I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wish to make them better."
By far the most interesting section of the book is the final one, in which Stapert provides commentary on the biblical texts assembled by Charles Jennen and the relationship of the theology of these texts to their musical settings. Stapert describes in detail the music's inherent ability to convey the propositional content of the words in sound. Although he does not specifically articulate how music accomplishes this amazing feat, he implies throughout his musical descriptions that Handel relied on the ability of music to communicate motion. For instance, in describing Handel's treatment of "Comfort Ye," Stapert observes, "In order to achieve the desired effect, the bows caress the strings almost as a mother would caress her distraught child. The gently stroked E major chords suggest tenderness. Before a word is sung, the orchestra 'speaks' of comfort" (pp. 89–90). The aural imagery is vivid.
If you love Handel's Messiah, Stapert's book will give you great insight into why the music speaks so profoundly regarding our Savior. If you do not yet love Handel's Messiah, Stapert will show you why you should.