Time to Lift Up Your Heads

Come along with me as I muse about one of my favorite pieces of music, on a day when it seems especially apt.

There are good years when we’re rolling along enjoying springtime pleasures. And there are years when it’s much more difficult, when we wonder if winter will ever end. Never mind the weather, there’s the inner experience of the spirit, our struggles in the world.

I’m looking at one of the choruses in Handel’s Messiah that comes at an interesting point in the Passion narrative, especially resonant in this difficult year. It comes as the story begins to turn from horror & pain towards something gradually more positive & redemptive.

I thought of the piece as I was outside walking my dog. Whether we’re in church or isolating ourselves at home our feelings don’t stop. Our needs are still there.

The name of the chorus is “Lift up your heads”, which is literally a good idea. Okay, so don’t hang your head. That’s a good thought no matter what you face. If you’ve got stage-fright, if you’re meeting customers or your boss, smile and behave as though you have something to offer: even if you are having doubts.

Handel took a small part of Psalm 24 and placed it into his Passion narrative at a moment when we need something positive.

Here’s the Psalm.

The earth is the LORD’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.
2 For he hath founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods.
3 Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place?
4 He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.
5 He shall receive the blessing from the LORD, and righteousness from the God of his salvation.
6 This is the generation of them that seek him, that seek thy face, O Jacob. Selah.
7 Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.
8 Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle.
9 Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.
10 Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory. Selah.

Handel only uses a tiny part of the Psalm, and his text reads entirely different in its new context. Let’s look a bit more closely at what he did.

We begin Part Two of Messiah  with “Behold the Lamb of God” and the Alto solo “He was Despised”. The choruses then pound upon us, one after another.

  • Surely he hath borne our griefs
  • And with his stripes we are healed
  • All we like sheep (a bit of comic relief)
  • He trusted in God (with the relentless admonitions “let him deliver him”)

A pair of airs relieve some of the intensity of the drama, as we pause to look around, to notice and to contemplate what has happened so far. First we have the abject sadness of “Behold and see if there be any sorrow”. Behold. Look. Notice how sad the story is. Then there is the more positive “But thou dids’t not leave his soul in hell, ” the smallest consolation in fact.

And then the next number is something entirely different.

Taken as a separate piece, it’s a beautiful composition. As a number within the dramatic arc of the Messiah it’s especially moving. “Lift up your heads” is my favorite in the whole oratorio, both as an inspired creation from Handel & for how it makes me feel. Alas when Ivars Taurins chose which numbers to include in the Tafelmusik singalong, this one was omitted, likely because it’s not easy to sing. I’m grateful that at least I’ve had a chance to hear it & especially the chance to sing it as part of a choir.

So Handel grabs the last part of the Psalm for his libretto. We’ll consider what music he put to it in a moment…

Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in.
Who is this King of Glory? The Lord strong and mighty, The Lord mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in.
Who is this King of Glory? The Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Glory.

In the Psalm what exactly is the psalmist doing, personifying the gates? Do gates have heads, are they alive in any sense? In a conventional / literal reading of the Psalm we might think of the gates only in their function as the entry to the Holy City, where the procession of the tabernacle might be brought and welcomed. But the Holy City is a metaphor for so much more (indeed, in the Psalms as well). The gates are to our own hearts, to our spirit, opening to the King of Glory. We are the gates and so it makes poetic & spiritual sense for us to lift up our heads. Notice too it’s not a single head, not a single gate, but a plural, a collective response.

And notice too that we aren’t told to open the doors. That it’s presented as a fact that The King of Glory shall come in makes it clear that this isn’t so much an act that we make happen. We prepare ourselves, we lift our heads, and the King comes to us.

Handel then creates a dramatic chorus that turns this little text into a dialogue. The psalmist may have been thinking of something more Socratic, more like an internal question & answer between aspects of our selves. But Handel dramatizes it, splitting the chorus. As with the Christmas Eve angels, the high voices are angelic and the lower voices more human, whether as the Christmas Eve shepherds (in Part One) or in this case, the male voices who are asking the questions. It’s a physical drama we can see enacted before us when one section questions the other, and then offers encouragement to them.

It’s one of the cleanest bits of writing for the first few pages, as though Handel were determined that we would hear the text and not have it occluded by dense textures in the orchestra.

Notice too at the most literal level we’re watching something on the page.

  • “Lift up your heads” is a melodic figure that descends, coming from above, and confident in its affirmation
  • The questioning figures of “who is this King of Glory” ascends upwards, unsure.

The back and forth is an occasion to build enthusiasm, certainty, resolve. Eventually with the final statements of “He is the King of Glory” we’re hearing a unified celebratory affirmation, no longer questioning but certain.

It seems especially apt for this Sunday. Today is Palm Sunday, when we think of a procession and the gates of the city being open. It is also Passion Sunday, as Holy Week is here, whether or not one goes to church.

Whatever you believe or doubt, I think we need all the help we can get.

This entry was posted in Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays, Spirituality & Religion and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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