To celebrate the Reign of Christ and the triumphant end to the Church year, let’s listen to a great Handel aria!
The whole of Part 3 of Messiah is about Christ as redeemer and about his kingdom. This aria is right at the start of Part 3, and you can already hear the triumph that is to emerge in this story, not of escape from death in this world, but of embracing death and reconciling it into eternal life.
You might be familiar with the words of this aria:
I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. (Job 19:25-26)
For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep. (1 Corinthians 15:20)
But did you know that for the musical setting of the portion “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth,” Handel reworked material from an earlier opera that expresses an almost opposite sentiment? The little air that opens Act II of Riccardo primo has these lyrics:
Se m’è contrario il Cielo, e che sperar potrò frà tante pene.
If heaven is against me, what hope is there for me in all this trouble?
In both cases, the music supports the mood of the words. So how does Handel take this musical material from despair in Riccardo to hope in Messiah?
Both songs are set in the same key and for a soprano, both employ a continuo and strings, and the same melody is recognisable in both. Here is the soprano’s first entry in each song:
One of the main differences is that Handel has changed the meter from four beats per bar in “Se m’è contrario il Cielo” to three beats per bar in “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” That gives the Messiah piece the sound of a minuet, a dance.
He has also moved the metrical position of the melody. In the example of “Se m’è contrario il Cielo” above, I’ve marked the start of two phrases with red boxes. Both phrases start on a high E and they start on an off-beat (so they begin with very little accent).
The red boxes in the example of “I know that my Redeemer liveth” mark the same points – the start of the two phrases. You can see here that not only does the high E now fall on the first beat of the bar (ie. the strongest beat), but Handel has also added an upbeat to each phrase. That means that the E is arrived at by an upward leap of a fourth – a declamatory gesture.
Do you agree that these changes make the difference between music that suggests “let’s give up” and music that suggests “I have faith in my King”? Listen to these two recordings and see if you get any further ideas!
Sandrine Piau singing “Se m’è contrario il Cielo”
Eleven-year-old Henry Jenkinson singing “I know that my Redeemer liveth”