Taking a Step into the World of Baroque Music: An informal analysis of “Surely He hath borne our griefs” chorus from Handel’s Messiah
Though composed more than two centuries ago, this particular work of Handel’s still has enough power to entice musicians to perform it over and over again
A sacred oratorio, “Messiah” was composed by George Frideric Handel, one of the great composers that the Baroque era produced, who made the music for it in just twenty-four days in 1741. Changes were made at a later date to enhance the work, some pieces were changed, additions made and scores transcribed. The libretto of this work was done by Charles Jennens, a literary scholar who admired Handel’s music. Texts of this oratorio were taken from the Old and New Testaments. First premiered in Dublin the year after it was made, its reception was lukewarm. It was the performance in London that cemented its rise in fame and made it a well-loved and often-repeated music. (Sources: 1, 2 )
As opposed to the opera, which was also flourishing during the Baroque era, the chorus plays an important part in the oratorio, providing emphasis for the music in a way that a solo singer cannot, giving more gravity to the text in how it is sung, creating a wider range of timbres and harmonies.
“Surely He hath borne our griefs” is a chorus in the second part of this three-part work, the first in a succession of three choruses (Surely He hath borne our griefs, And with His stripes we are healed, All we, like sheep, have gone astray) after the aria for alto “He was despised” which is about how Christ was rejected by his people, and also talked about His burden.
It would be interesting to note that the text of the piece that started the second part of the oratorio came from John 1:29 that John the Baptist said about Jesus, and the succeeding pieces were prophecies from the Old Testament about the Messiah’s suffering for mankind. It gives the feeling of triumph for mankind with the “Behold the Lamb of God” chorus but tempers it with the aria and three next choruses that depicts the pain and suffering that Jesus must endure, happy at first but there is a flashback, a foreboding that there is something sad to happen which makes it a bit melancholic.
The aria (“He was despised”) conveys the pain and rejection that was to be endured by Christ from His own people and the text is part of the group verses from the Book of Isaiah that connects this aria and the following three choruses, found in chapter fifty-three, starting from verse three until verse six. “Surely He hath borne our griefs” talks about His suffering for the entire human race, the wounds the He bore for us, the grief He endured for our sins, and how “the chastisement of our peace was upon Him”.
In the first part of the chorus, “Surely, Surely, He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” is repeated twice, meaning to that the composer is trying to make a solid statement by doing so. This is found in Isaiah chapter fifty-three verses four and five and connects to the next chorus “And with His stripes we are healed” which is derived from verse five also. The texts flow from one to another, interconnected with each other regardless of the fact that some texts are from the Old Testament and some are from the New Testament which gives us the feeling of the earnest thought that the librettist did in order for the entire thing to coalesce.
This chorus is in the key of F minor, a key which continues into the next one (which is reasonable considering the fact that “And with His stripes we are healed” is connected by the flow of verse). It is a four-voice chorus, SATB. Keeping the meter in 4/4, Largo e staccato makes the piece slow and broad, stately but detached. Dynamics are either forte or mezzo forte throughout, implying a certain gravity. The timbre is moderately dark, the texture moderately thick as well, because the piece is mostly homophonic throughout with the piano accompaniment and orchestra weaving the harmonies intricately together while keeping it simple enough. The form is ABC with no repeats of a section (the A section being measures 6-11, B section 12-19, and the C section 20-22), meaning that it is divided into three parts. In the first section (measures 6-11),
the violins accompanied the voices while the bass strings provides the counterpoint. The entire orchestra then goes with the chorus and gives a smooth background for the singers to emphasize the text in the second section (measures 13-19, with pick up on measure 12),
and in the third section (starting in the fourth beat in measure 19 for the choir) the cello now accompanies the choir while the rest of strings the provide the counterpoint, exchanging the places that they have from the first sections, and as the voices finish the cello joins the rest of the orchestra in playing the dotted rhythms, which is an influence of the French overture style that Jean Baptiste Lully introduced and which many composers after him used in their works.
It blends the style particularly well with the piece since it also serves as a sort of introduction for the succession of three choruses. The dotted rhythm, which actually starts in the last section of “He was despised” and flows into this piece, which is in the overture and can be heard here in the part of the instruments creating a connection to the other pieces in the oratorio that also sports dotted rhythms. (Source)
The word painting in this piece manages to bring out the music in a way that connects it emotionally and musically. Especially in the parts of the voices the motion of the music is more step-wise and implies a sober and serious atmosphere that wants to keep a straight-forward message without running around. Quite a few words that expresses sorrow and suffering are given attention. For example, in measure 5, the word ‘griefs’ is a diminished 7th chord, bringing out a depiction of anguish through the dissonant harmony. The word ‘borne’ (found in measure 7 and 10)
is emphasized by the use of dotted notes. There is a short part of imitation that starts on measure 17 “the chastisement” that the soprano and tenor start and the alto and bass imitates, that causes a feeling being scolded or reprimanded, and culminates when the voices come together on the word ‘peace’ that produces unity.
Handel’s Messiah is considered as a revolutionary work in the musical genre of oratorio and is one that many later composers in the same genre based their own, Haydn being an example with his work Creation. Of course, Haydn created his own style, for example in the fact that he made some solo and chorus parts into just one movement while Handel kept them separate. But the composers that made Handel’s style as a basis did not follow him like a pied piper, they had their own.(Source)
One of the aspects that made Handel’s Messiah quite unique in his own way was the use of contrasts, the ones between the instruments and voices, the timbre, the textures, and the different movements that make up the entirety of the whole oratorio. “Surely He hath borne our griefs” has a very different style from the chorus that follows it, “With His stripes we are healed”, which is a fugue (the only true one in Messiah) in stile antico. Handel essentially goes from homophonic in “Surely He hath borne our griefs” and makes a big contrast by making “With His stripes we are healed” polyphonic
with a more complex texture than the previous chorus by the voices that move in and out of the music in a faster pace, as the piece is in moderato. (Source)
The instrumental accompaniment provided by the orchestra gives it stability while the voices brings out its complexity, unlike in “Surely He hath borne our griefs” where the instruments goes along with choir with the texture and timbre. The third chorus in the succession, “All we like sheep have gone astray”, is connected to the previous one by being the parallel major of the F minor key of “With his stripes we are healed” and provides another contrast to the other two pieces by the relatively jolly sound and even faster pace than the other two. It is more of a mix of both “Surely He hath borne our griefs” and “With his stripes we are healed”, part homophonic and part polyphonic with a little imitation between voices here and there. But it ends with the tempo of adagio, more stately and serious tone. The differences in the three choruses is a tiny example of the styles and contrasts that Handel did in the entire work that gives it brilliance and complexity that is seen throughout the score. (Source)
“Surely He hath borne our griefs” connects the aria “He was despised” and the three successive choruses, for which it is the first. To the entire second part of this three-part music, it plays its role in how the text progresses to how the musical side of things progresses. As it is, all the different parts of Messiah brings out its brilliance, not just each piece by itself but all the arias, ariosos, recitatives, the instrumental music, they all provides the beauty of the contrasts that Handel placed in this work. From the aria “He was despised” to the chorus “All we like sheep have gone astray”, there can be heard a progression of tempo of slow to fast, as well as the progression in the texture (solo, homophony, polyphony, part homophony and polyphony) that culminates in a mix of both. In a way “Surely He hath borne our griefs” provides an important connection of progression, but in and of itself connects to the other pieces musically and textually.(Source)
Handel’s Messiah serves as a timeless oratorio that from its conception in the Baroque era until now is still being performed over and over again by different choirs and orchestras, professional and amateurs alike. “Surely He hath borne our griefs” is only a tiny part of a large work, but is in and of itself a beautiful piece of music.
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