by Peter Benyola
On Sunday, Jan. 4, 2015, at St. Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Florida, during the offertory for the evening worship, I had the privilege of being accompanied by Drew Pace on the organ for George Frederic Handel’s Messiah, Scene 2: The Purifying Messiah Is Prophesied, No. 5, accompagnato for bass, “Thus Saith the Lord” (click to listen).
This recitative is part of Handel’s 1741 masterpiece oratorio that celebrates the advent of Jesus Christ the Messiah. The lyrics of the piece are taken from two Old Testament prophecies, Haggai 2 and Malachi 3, whose cryptic foretelling was fulfilled in the fullness of time, with the incarnation of Christ.
(Haggai 2:6-7) “Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of Hosts: Yet once a little while and I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come.”
(Malachi 3:1) “The LORD, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple, even the messenger of the Covenant, whom ye delight in; behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of Hosts.”
The challenging parts of the piece to learn were the melismata, a technique common to baroque music, which is the singing of a syllable of text while moving between several different notes in succession. The intention is to cause the voice to imitate an instrument such as a violin.
The melismatic piece “Thus Saith the Lord” also resembles a type of music common to the baroque period, called madrigal. In madrigals, the music mimics what the lyrics are saying. For example, in “As Vesta was from latmos hill descending,” an a cappella song composed by Thomas Weelkes in 1601, the music goes up the scale on the word “ascending,” and down the scale on “descending” and “came running down amain.”
In “Thus Saith the Lord,” the melismata are written into the word “shake” several times, designed to give the voice a quality of tremolo and resonance.
I’ve had formal vocal training in classical technique, but I don’t think it ever included melismatic singing, so I required more time than usual to rehearse and learn this particular piece to keep the definition with which the piece is written. Randall Van Meggelen took the time to coach me in the melismatic technique.
A good way that singers and musicians can learn baroque or classical music that is complex, precise and performed very fast, is to learn to sing or play the notes slowly, perfect the piece and get comfortable with it, and then speed up the tempo as we become more proficient. Another example of a difficult, but beautiful baroque piece that requires precision and meet the allegro tempo that it was written to be performed, is Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D Minor.
It was not easy in the beginning to learn a piece like “Thus Saith the Lord,” but once I reached the point of being comfortable with it, it was great fun to sing.