It is said that during the 24 days in which George Frederick Handel composed Messiah, he was often moved to tears by the power of the music and the story to which he was setting it. Even today the oratorio is considered a masterpiece and continues to deeply affect its audience. Though the most famous piece is of course the Hallelujah! chorus, no part of Messiah ought to be overlooked. Even one of the smallest parts, the recitative Thy Rebuke Hath Broken his Heart, is carefully and masterfully constructed. Its eighteen measures contain brilliant melodic and harmonic devices that paint the corresponding text intensely.
In the context of the oratorio as a whole, which tells of Jesus Christ's birth, sacrifice, and resurrection, Thy Rebuke focuses on the unbearable suffering of the crucifixion. Preceding this piece is a chorus that mocks again and again in a fugue, “He trusted in God that He would deliver Him, let Him deliver Him, if He delight in Him.” If the pain of the sacrifice was not enough, Christ also must endure this taunting. Thy Rebuke follows, continuing the story with a soloist addressing the people directly, expressing the Messiah's despair at being deserted by even his disciples. His pain is unmatched, as the text of the next aria announces: “Behold and see, if there be any sorrow like unto His sorrow.” Finally, he is “cut off from the land of the living,” ending his suffering and completing his sacrifice.
The fugue that precedes Thy Rebuke ends with a cadence in C minor, but the recitative begins with an Ab major chord, immediately pivoting towards F minor. The ambiguity in the key caused by using a pivot chord feels a bit like the camera is panning over to a different side of the set. The focus was previously on the choristers and the doubt of the people in the story. With the new key of F minor, the perspective now portrays Christ's excruciating suffering.
F minor is firmly established with an E diminished chord, which corresponds with the word “rebuke.” It is extremely fitting that this word be matched to such a dissonant chord. According to the Oxford American dictionaries, among all English verbs implying criticism and disapproval, “rebuke” is “the harshest.” Like the word “rebuke,” diminished triads are arguably the harshest quality triad, because no matter how you stack or spell a diminished chord, there is no escape from the tension and need for resolution. Similarly, in Christ's situation there is also no escape. The diminished chords do, however, resolve. Fittingly, they resolve to a minor chord with the mention of heartbreak. However, the resolution is short-lived.
Immediately following the establishment of F minor, Handel moves directly to an F major chord, the seven of G minor, and confirms this second key area with an authentic cadence. The words that correspond to this harmonic movement are “He is full of heaviness.” These words are only used in this section of G minor, and in spite of the major quality of the chords used to create this key, there is an unquestionable weight in the harmony. Handel's immediate deviance from expectation with his movement from key to key quickly establish the mood of despair. In a matter of measures the listener's expectations are created and crushed, created and crushed again, and in this way the music portrays Christ's own distress.
In the next phrase, the word “rebuke” returns, again with a diminished chord that is used to modulate. This time, however, the chord, A diminished, does not resolve immediately, instead detouring to the new tonic in second inversion (E minor) before going to the dominant it suggested (B major). The return of the familiar lyric is strengthened by the partial familiarity of distress with its new delayed resolution, making the dissonance even tenser. Additionally, the chord interrupting the resolution is more than just a delay, because it is in second inversion, which is a very unstable inversion, especially with the tonic chord.
When the resolution does finally come, it is only for a single beat, which in turn resolves to the tonic, but with a Picardy third. This sustained major chord is the first ray of hope. However, the lyrics reveal that it is in vain: “He looked for some to have pity on him, but there was no man; neither found he any to comfort him.” The Picardy corresponds to the text about searching for pity, but ends up being used as the five of A minor rather than keeping the more uplifting key of E major. When the text continues to reveal that “there was no man,” an F major chord pivots the piece into D minor and a Neapolitan sixth chord. This Eb chord, while major, does not feel complete. Instead it is tense and distraught, leaving the listener in need of a resolution. Neapolitan sixth chords are stronger than other chords that have dominant functions because of their chromaticism and strangeness to the ear. They are unusual and distressing, as is Christ's inability to find any pity or comfort.
Adding to this anguish, Handel again uses the fully diminished seven of the dominant (now G#) and then delays its resolution to five (A major) with an inverted tonic chord. In repeating this harmonic figure, he brings back the desperation it created before, but this time it has been intensified with the preceding Neapolitan chord, which makes the lyrics much more poignant. Even stronger, the A major chord does not even resolve to tonic this time as it did previously; instead it moves chromatically up to yet another diminished chord, A#. By denying the listener a resolution, Handel is text-painting the refusal of mercy beautifully. Plus, over this chord the lyric “He looked for some to have pity on him” returns, but this time there is no glimmer of hope, since the listener now knows that there will be no pity found.
Finally Handel repeats his harmonic figure again in the new key – Neapolitan sixth, diminished seven of V, inverted tonic. The despair this figure causes is only made stronger by its repetition: initially, the factor of surprise played a large part in the emotion it conveyed, but now that it is becoming mildly familiar the hopelessness feels unavoidable. Every key Handel moves to has the same unfinished result, the same lack of mercy or pity that Christ seeks. However, in this final key, there is a resolution – a Picardy third, in fact. This time, the glimpse of hope it creates is more promising. The recitative is over, and soon the suffering will be too. It does not, however, feel complete – the necessity of the next piece is evident. It is this final B major chord that assures the listener that the story does not end here, and something greater is to come. The melody ends on the fifth of the final chord, reinforcing the incomplete resolution and really serving to make the next piece necessary.
Melodically speaking, the piece begins by outlining a tritone (E to Bb down to E), which effectively establishes a bit of a mood. Following the harmonic pattern, this first instance is less powerful than those that occur later, as it resolves up to tonic. When the lyrics “thy rebuke hath broken his heart” return, the melody similarly outlines a diminished triad. Again this dissonance serves to express the text.
In the next phrase, the melody outlines an E dominant seventh chord. At first, the E major part of it establishes the Picardy third in the accompaniment, but when the melody has a D, E major is turned on its head to act as the dominant of A minor instead of tonic. Thus the melody is an active part of the harmony, which is consistent with their shared text painting.
Clearly, every note in Handel's Thy Rebuke Hath Broken his Heart has been carefully considered and plotted, with nothing overlooked. In just eighteen measures, Handel has created a masterpiece of text-painting. The result is an intensely emotional piece of music that beautifully conveys the agony and suffering of the crucifixion.