Word Painting

As the soprano begins to sing the role of an astonished shepherd, a wispy, pulsing phrase in the violins hangs delicately in the air, so quiet and ephemeral it could be the gentle flutter of an angel's wings.

Turns out, that is the image Georg Friedrich Handel had in mind in a section of his sacred oratorio "Messiah" depicting the nativity: "And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them."

Angel sightings are another thing, but if you have attended a performance of "Messiah," participated in a sing-along or listened to a recording you have heard them. But unlike those astounded shepherds, most of us have not realized this or the other descriptive writing in this masterpiece that premiered in Dublin in 1742. Handel created such compelling melodic and fluid music that it's easy to overlook what is one of history's great examples of "word painting."

The baroque era in music -- roughly 1600 to 1750 -- saw enormous interest in this technique of depicting a word's meaning through music. A basic example is using dissonance to set the word "pain."

Handel was one of most skilled practitioners of onomatopoetic and pictorial composing. Throughout "Messiah," he depicted physical acts such as throwing, abstract notions such as "exulting" or "rejoicing" and even moods, such as the triumphant splendor of the "Hallelujah" chorus.

Even those who have sung "Messiah" aren't always made fully aware of Handel's continual crafting of music to express the words.

Some of the meanings are debatable as Handel never specifically revealed them. But he and Charles Jennens, Handel's librettist who recounted Christ's birth and God's promise of redemption, wanted the words to be understood clearly. Even though "Messiah" is in English -- taken from the King James Bible -- Handel's word painting enhances their discernment.

While some of Handel's gamesmanship in the "Messiah" is sophisticated, most can be understood by anyone willing to listen a little closer.

Take the first aria, or air, of the composition -- "Every valley shall be exalted." Many a composer would be content with just composing a melody with half the beauty of Handel's, but he went much further.

The text is: "Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain."

When the tenor sings the word, "crooked," Handel toggles between two notes; and with "straight," he writes one long note. The effect wonderfully contrasts uneven with straight.

Another common ploy in "Messiah" is Handel's use of high notes for the word "high" and low notes for "low." In the alto air "Thou art gone up on high," Handel ends "high" on a note quite elevated in the alto's register, lending clear emphasis to the word.

That's just the beginning.

Here are just a few other examples out of a veritable feast of word painting for which you'll want to keep your ears pricked in the "Messiah" this season:

"All we like sheep have gone astray." Handel begins this movement with the chorus singing chords all together on the words, "All we like sheep." But on the word "astray," the sopranos, tenors, altos and basses wander away from each other almost aimlessly and in faster notes. Then later, on the phrase "We have turned every one to his own way," the lines become even more independent, using counterpoint.

"The Lord gave the word" opens with these words sung in unison by the men. Slow and deliberate, the setting is meant to mimic the authority of God's word. But for the rest of the phrase, "great was the company of the preachers," Handel expands the music to include the entire chorus singing faster notes and filled-out chords.

"There were shepherds abiding in the field." For this recitative, or speech-like song, Handel wonderfully depicts the beating of the wings of angels who appear in the air above the quivering shepherds. That leads to ...

"Glory to God," in which Handel juxtaposes "Glory to God on high," lofty in pitch and light in timbre, sung by sopranos, altos and tenors, with "and peace on Earth," sung low in pitch and by the men. The effect? Contrasting heaven and Earth better than the words alone do.

"But who may abide the day of his coming?" contains one of the most dramatic moments in the entire oratorio. The text from Malachi prophesizes about Judgment Day, asking "who may abide the day of his coming?" This Handel crafts into a mysterious, slow air. But at the text, "for he is like a refiner's fire," the music explodes into ... well ... a fiery exclamation. The acceleration and ferociousness captures perfectly the threat of hell and damnation.

"The trumpet shall sound." The obvious solution here would be mimicking the trumpet, which Handel did with the bass singing a fanfare to open this air. But he went further by specifically writing a trumpet part to accompany the singer.

"And with His stripes." Handel uses a staggered entrance of Renaissance counterpoint to have each of the chorus' sections state this text prominently. The impression is of the falling of lash after lash on the back of Christ during the Passion. To depict the pain of the floggings, Handel composes a dissonant jump from a high note to a low one.

"The people that walked in darkness." This air for bass is a prime example of chiaroscuro in music. It begins with the bass singing in a walking gait that descends until he hits a low note on the word "darkness." When the text turns to "have seen a great light," not only does the line rise in pitch, it gets brighter in orchestration. A sustained note on "light" completes the picture.

"Let us break their bonds asunder." To portray this text for the chorus, Handel writes a very disjunct and jumping line marked staccato, or detached. It sounds very much like something is being broken. Later, for the words "and cast away their yokes from us," the music is "flung" by the singers singing of rapid and spiraling notes.

So there is much more than meets the ear in Handel's "Messiah."


 "Handel's 'Messiah' is a triumphant example of 'word painting'" Andrew Druckenbrod, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 2006. 19 Dec. 2006 <>.

The Compleat Messiah All Content Copyright © 2009 Bret D. Wheadon
All Rights Reserved.