Versions of this aria exist in Handel’s hand for counter tenor, bass and soprano (although it is likely that the version which ended up in the first printed edition by Novello, for bass, was heavily influenced by Mozart who re-orchestrated the work in Vienna in 1789 adding flutes, clarinets, French horns and trombones). The movement falls into a double binary structure (ABAB) with a lyrical, lilting A section followed by a fast and furious B section. The gentle barcarole˚ type rhythms of the A section conjure up a sense of false security before the dramatic and vivid word setting of ‘For he is like a refiner’s fire’ where the musical representation of God burning away the impurities of mankind is laid bare, with fast-running passages for the strings, and wild leaps in the vocal part, creating the image of flashes or sudden stabs of flames and sparks. In achieving these violent contrasts, Handel uses the rhetorical device known as ‘antithesis’ – music of contrasting styles placed adjacent to one another.


Aria   Soprano

Malachi III, v 2

But who may abide the day of his coming? And who shall stand when he appeareth?  For he is like a refiner’s fire.


Material from this chorus is parodied˚ from the Duetto di Camera (Chamber Duet) ‘Quel fior che all’alba ride’ (‘The flower that laughs when day breaks’, HWV 192) written about six weeks earlier in the summer of 1741. There is some interesting imagery in this chorus which is fugal and in the minor tonality. The subject begins immediately with the sopranos and passes through the basses, altos and tenors in turn, although there is no obvious countersubject˚, which is unusual and means that the texture does not build up from the beginning like a conventional fugue. The second phrase of the subject has a repeated pattern of four insistent notes followed by a long melisma. As the movement progresses, and this is reiterated with increasing intensity in different parts, it seems to resemble repeated metal hammer blows on an anvil – continuing the theme of refining and purifying.  This pattern of four repeated notes is known rhetorically as a ‘bombus’.



Malachi III, v 3

And he shall purify the sons of Levi, […..] that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.


As we move to Scene 3, and in contrast to the previous movements, Handel sets this first prophetic mention of the virgin birth to a serene and very simple recitative, in which the major key is reinstated and the mood softened.


Recitative  Counter Tenor

Isaiah VII, v 14

Matthew I, v 23

Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel. God with us.


The anticipation of a Messiah is extended in this free-flowing movement based on a gigue˚ and we are back to Old Testament words. The geography of the opening violin part is alternately markedly high and low, the motifs separated by more than an octave; possibly a musical illustration of the ‘high mountains’ and the ‘cities of Judah’ down below. The first and second violins play identical notes and rhythms in this movement. The words ‘behold’ and ‘arise’ are at times separated from the rest of the text, and the words ‘arise and ‘are risen’ are set to rising melodic shapes. After the counter tenor has had his say, the oboes join in and the movement erupts into a full-blown imitative chorus developing and re-working the same musical material.


Aria   Counter Tenor Chorus

Isaiah XL, v 9

Isaiah LX, v 1

[O Zion that bringest good tidings] O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain [O Jerusalem]. O thou that tellest [bringest] good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength, lift it up, be not afraid, say unto the cities of Judah, “Behold your God”. Arise, shine for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.


The music returns to the minor key for this short accompagnato recitative and the dark timbre of the bass voice is used, with the bassoon also darkening the orchestral sound. The strings oscillate between adjacent notes in intimidating couplets, and notable word setting is used on the words ‘gross darkness’, where again the tritone is used, and ‘arise’ which does just that in pitch terms, moving through the major tonality. Handel uses the rhetorical device of ‘amplificatio’ here, where the second clause of the text is repeated, but at a higher pitch and a louder volume to heighten the effect of the word ‘gross’. Handel’s omission of the definite article in the opening words serves to give greater emphasis and a sense of doom to the text. (Haydn’s vivid portrayal of darkness and light at the start of his oratorio ‘Creation’ (1797) may owe something to this movement. Haydn will have heard Messiah in London, and would almost certainly have heard Mozart’s re-orchestration of it in Vienna almost a decade earlier.)

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