You may have have listened to Handel’s Messiah before and thought “I like this” or “This is great Christmas music” (btw it’s technically not Christmas music, see the last post). But you have never fully experienced this work until you understand what Handel is doing with the music. Handel had a purpose in mind when he composed the music, it is not just there to sound good (although it does sound good).

I’m tempted to go on a tangent here and discuss the genius of classical music, but that’s what this blog is kind of about. So today we’ll look at a particularly genius technique called text painting (or word painting), which is found in Handel’s Messiah.

Text painting is basically when the music sounds like what the words are talking about. So if a composer writes a song that talks about climbing up a mountain, using text painting the music would gradually get higher up in the notes that shatter windows. Or if it was talking about going down the mountain, the music would get lower and lower down into the bass notes. The music helps to interpret what is going on in the text, or paints a musical picture.

Handel used passages from the King James Version of the Bible for his Messiah, so they use a lot of thees and thous and haths and stuff because the text is from the 1600s. The verse that Handel uses in the chorus we’re gonna look at is from Isaiah 53:6-

All we like sheep have gone astray; 
We have turned every one to his own way; 
And the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Here is a video so you can hear what’s going on and see what it looks like in the music:

The following notes don’t go in the order they appear in the music, so listen to it first, then follow the notes below to get an idea of how Handel uses word painting and how the melody varies each time the words are repeated.
All we like sheep– This includes everyone “all” so “all” sing together (00:00)
Have gone astray– the different voices break off, doing their own thing, going all over the place on the word “astray”. (00:10) – The sopranos and tenors go in opposite directions, symbolizing the sheep wandering off away from the flock and from each other. “Astray” is sung in a different way each time (00:10, 00:20, 00:41, 1:16, 01:58)

We have turned– They sing “turning” notes on the word “turned”, going up and down (00:24, 00:49, 01:28, 2:18). Notice the different melodies sung at the same time by the men and women, on “every one to his own way”, each doing their own thing (00:58)
And the Lord– (02:43)- the consequences of the “sheep” going astray, so it gets sad and serious, since it results in the crucifixion of Jesus.
So that is just one of many examples of word painting in Handel’s work, which goes to show why he wrote it that way. To see more examples of word painting, check out Wikipedia’s article on word painting, which includes another example from Handel’s Messiah, and a few from modern music.


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