The oscillation of adjacent pitches is continued into this movement but with a broader feel. The idea of walking is portrayed though the bass line which has a perpetually moving, ‘walking’, restless, angular feel. The minor tonality is used and the voices and all instruments are locked in an harmonically barren unison, full of chromaticism˚, except for the word ‘light’ which is always harmonised with a bright major chord. The Baroque flautist and composer J.J. Quantz (1697-1773), described the concept of a walking bass with legato lines and a consistent harmonic pulse over the top as ‘sublime’.


Aria   Bass

Isaiah IX, v 2

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; [and] they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.


It is arguable as to whether this movement belongs at the end of Scene 3 (the prophecy of the virgin birth) or at the start of Scene 4, as a prelude to the Gospel words of Luke on the annunciation to the shepherds, which are to follow shortly. The music for this rousing chorus is borrowed from the secular Italian Duetto di Camera for two sopranos and continuo, ‘No, di voi non vo fidarmi’ (‘No, I do not want to trust you’ HWV 189) written by Handel just a few weeks earlier in the summer of 1741. The opening motif of this boisterous duet is used without alteration for the subject and countersubject of this fugal chorus. Handel maintains a thin texture, again dropping the strict use of countersubject and limiting himself only to pairs of voices and single vocal lines, only to explode into full SATB magnificence on the words ‘wonderful, counsellor…’, again using the rhetorical device known as ‘noema’. As the fugue progresses, the texture becomes increasingly dense with four-part polyphony and homophony. In her book ‘Handel’s Messiah, a Rhetorical Guide’, Judy Tarling describes the word setting of this movement as incompetent, as it puts emphasis on the word ‘for’, arguably the least important word in the text. (We should perhaps remember that English was not Handel’s native tongue, but, after German and Italian, his third language.)



Isaiah IX, v 6

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.


In his Christmas Oratorio of 1734, Bach includes an orchestral pastoral sinfonia at exactly the same point in the Christmas story as Handel has done here, although Handel could not possibly have known this in 1741. Both composers chose simple keys and a time of 12/8, allowing for gentle lilting rhythms in the style of a Siciliano˚. Bach’s is considerably longer and more detailed whereas Handel satisfies himself with a simple melody in thirds, accompanied largely by a drone/pedal. This music introduces the scene on the hillside at night on Christmas eve, and it is as though we are being transported there, where the shepherds entertain themselves with music. The word Pifa is an abbreviation for Pifferari which is the Italian name for a shawm (a woodwind instrument like an early oboe) often played by shepherds. They also played a bagpipe-type of instrument, hence the simple harmony and drone present in this movement. (Bach uses the oboe da caccia in his equivalent movement, which produces a very similar nasal-type timbre.) The English organist and musicologist, Dr. Edward Rimbault (1816-1876), writing in his preface to Messiah in the edition for the Handel Society, professes to identify the melody note for note as that from a MS collection of ancient hymns written in 1630; but what collection, and where it is to be found, he does not say.


Pifa   (Pastoral Sinfonia)


Here begins one of the few (almost) continuous passages of biblical text selected by Jennens, as the next four short movements run together without a break, and alternate secco recitative with accompagnato. The secco passages are very simple, allowing the text to come through without hindrance. However, the accompaniment in the other passages consist of fast, repeating, upward arpeggios in the strings, suggesting the motion of angel wings, whilst the tessitura˚ of the continuo is very high and harmonically static, generating a musical illusion of hovering. The suddenness of the appearance of other angels is also described by the way in which the soprano starts the final section.


Recitative   Soprano

Luke II, v 8

[And] There were [in the same country] shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.


Recitative   Soprano

Luke II, v 9

And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them; and they were sore afraid.


Recitative   Soprano

Luke II, vv 10-11

And the angel said unto them, fear not; for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be unto all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.


Recitative   Soprano

Luke II, v 13

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying;

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