Three things I learned from Handel’s ‘Messiah’

Hallelujah for Handel

A professional musician, years in the business, told me a couple weeks ago that she had the strangest experience. She played a Messiah concert and loved it.

A statue on Dublin's Fishamble Street erected in honor of the first performance of Handel's 'Messiah.' (Photo by William Murphy via Creative Commons/Flickr)

You need to understand the working musician’s mindset. The longer a professional plays, the more Messiahs will be tucked under the belt, until one has seen and heard everything.

Good and bad performances; good and bad players, singers, conductors; this version and that; slow and fast tempos; all the repeats or some; dotted or double-dotted eighth notes; cadence with the singer or after; Christmas portion or Easter portion or complete or really, really complete. After a while, nothing is new under the sun. It’s easy to auto-cruise or burn out.

And it’s easy for any of us, at this time of year, to dismiss Handel’s great oratorio. We have been there, done that, taken it for granted. But there are three things it taught me.

Part the First: It is bigger than you

John Cage said about Messiah that he liked to be moved but didn’t like to be pushed. Like any John Cage quote, it is a little wise and a little funny, but Cage felt that way about all music. Traffic on the street outside a concert hall was as valid a musical experience to him as what was being played in the hall.

A created thing, like music, engenders every experience that randomness, like traffic, can. And it gives you something more. A created thing, say, a purposeful composition, lets you meet a composer. That meeting forces you outside of yourself, to something else you must acknowledge. In the case of Handel’s Messiah, it is not only something else, but also something greater.

Oh, yes, you know it’s bigger than you; it’s bigger than anything you could have come up with on your own. Meeting Handel’s Messiah is like walking up to the Grand Canyon. You may wish right then for a smaller thing, like a water fountain, or a flatter thing, like a field, or a bigger thing, like an ocean. You may wish for something that isn’t in your way. But one thing’s for sure.

You do not get to have an opinion about the Grand Canyon.

Part the Second: It is drama and beauty

Drama and beauty are not two things, but one. We will not follow a drama unless it has attraction, that is, unless we find it beautiful. But a thing of beauty does not attract us without a drama, unless it tells us a story we want to hear. Beauty without drama is cold, drama without beauty is noise. The best art has two things: A “come hither,” and a “go thou and do likewise.”

Messiah, from start to finish, is a beautifully unfolding drama. Every bit of it, from the Overture and “Comfort ye my people” all the way through “Worthy is the Lamb,” is by itself a moment of exquisite beauty. Every moment drives the story further.

I won’t kid you, the complete Messiah is long, and my attention has lapsed. I always blame myself, though. If my mind wanders, it’s sometime during Part the Second. But in a few moments comes the chorus of choruses. Sniff, if you like, at the “Hallelujah!” chorus, but it is perfectly wrought. Your hearing it over and over doesn’t change that. It is all beauty and drama, and if you feel yourself jaded, just pretend you’re a park ranger working at the Grand Canyon.

Part the Third: It is odd

After impoverishing himself from years of writing opera (the thing he most wanted to write, but which England didn’t want to hear), he invented a new form, the English oratorio. It’s a sacred piece for a secular audience. It was meant for the concert hall, not, like a cantata, for the church. Judas Maccabeus and other Handel oratorios are on sacred subjects but have dramatized stories with invented filler. Messiah is different. Its “libretto” is nothing but Bible verses. A lot of Bible verses.

He wrote Messiah (in 24 days) for a charity concert, to raise money for a Dublin debtors’ prison. They raised enough to release 142 men. Then he brought it to London, but people saw the title, Messiah, and saw that it was the Christian history of salvation from the Old and New Testaments. Then they saw that he wanted it performed not in a church but in a theater, and they almost pulled the plug on it. Inappropriate, some called it; Satanic, even.

Dublin raved, but in London, the first performances didn’t go over well. This story without characters, this operatic non-opera, this Messiah puzzled them.

A few years later he was almost bankrupt again, but a successful Judas Maccabeus rejuvenated his career. He ended up conducting Messiah more than 30 times.

When I asked the professional musician why she loved playing this particular performance of Messiah, she said that the conductor and the players were treating it as something new. They were playing the piece as if it mattered.

That’s what I learned. Handel’s Messiah teaches me that every piece I write should matter. Odd music that frees people from prison is not a bad thing.

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