Messiah and a Modern Mess
George Frideric Handel’s oratorio Messiah is to the King James translation of the Bible much as baseball was to the American Civil War, as Ken Burns has observed; each flowed out of the other. Messiah was written in English, and is now best-known piece of Christian vocal art in history. Librettist Charles Jennens captured the ideas of Christianity through the King James Bible and the anglican book of common prayer’s words in Messiah that when sung in the version according to Handel takes about two hours and 45 minutes, depending on those putting it on. Since its first performance in 1742 it has sent forth a Hallelujah that has not only caused kings and crowds to rise, but which has paid for hospitals, orphanages, and a more than a few starving musicians’ suppers.
Messiah is a cultural phenomenon like no other. It is also wholly and totally Church of England. Jennens, a British intellectual and aristocrat took the 1611 King James translation of the Bible, then still relatively new, and, by selecting a series of verses starting with the words of the profit Isaiah, wrote the libretto and asked Handel to “lay out his whole genius and skill upon it,” so that it would outshine all his other works.
And that is exactly what happened.
Jennens’ intention was to acclaim what the King James Bible called the ‘mystery of godliness’.. Messiah, the real work that emerged is "a commentary on [Jesus Christ's] Nativity, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension," beginning with God's promises as spoken by the prophets and ending with Christ's ascension to and glorification in heaven. It tells the entire story -- from the prediction of the birth of the Christ child, through his life, and eventually his death and resurrection. The whole Christian calendar is there, wrapped up in emotionally riveting notes and flurries hummed, sung and blasted forth.
The first full performance of Messiah in the United States was on Christmas Day, 1818 by the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston. That society is still going strong, and its leader from the 1960’s through the 1980’s was Thomas Dunn, who also conducted Brahms’ German Requiem, in German here, and I sang that with Toledo Symphony Choral when that existed under his direction.
Messiah after it reached American shores had become an icon of performance in Great Britain with choruses of sometimes a thousand or more singers participating in events that were benefits for the Foundling Hospital in London. That hospital took in babies that were left (found) along the wharfs of the Thames River, often by prostitutes.
Today, it is both bemusing and instructive to see what America can do with the work that was born The Messiah. The musical leadership at the Toledo Symphony produced a rift here by overturning what had apparently become a local tradition in which partnerships with a century-old society of amateur singers, the Toledo Choral Society, performed Messiah at Christmas. The Symphony took it away this year deciding to put it into the hands of a small, select group of semi-professional singers.
The choral society’s members were deeply offended, and unwilling to melt away quietly. As a result, this year we had two different groups performing Messiah here in a sort of competition. The Symphony sponsored a group of 25 semi-professional singers chosen by what was said to be a meticulous audition, and gave a single performance in Rosary Cathedral. The hundred members of the Toledo Choral Society offered two performances in two separate churches; one Roman Catholic, the other Lutheran, Handel’s own denomination.
Interestingly, there is no real reason for Messiah to be performed as a Christmas oratorio; it wasn’t meant to be one, and was first put on in April -- but it has become associated with the holiday. Washington National Cathedral had two performances the first weekend of December this year, and there are countless others in nearly every city in America every year at this season, or at least there was before the pandemic.
That, by the way, is another of the ironies about with Messiah in Toledo this year. It became a sort of a coming-out party as we all begin, despite new variants of the virus, to shed our pandemic- induced social isolation and fears.
Toledo 2021, indeed, became a microcosm of the different ways Messiah has been offered over the years. Do you want to see it put on my large groups of amateur singers with soloists of some skill, some soaring, others fighting with the trumpets, or have it performed by a small, tightly honed group of professionals, with soloists trying to make sounds like those Handel would have heard in the 1740s?
The professionals, for sure, sang over the trumpets. But when and if that final trumpet sounds and the dead are raised, will that performance be one the world and eternity remembers?
Somehow, I don’t think so. I was at Rosary Cathedral and my bent, somehow, was deeply offended by how the work was handled by the conductor of the Symphony this year. What he rolled out was an admittedly talented group of singers and soloists to perform the Messiah abridged - a version designed by somebody and called Messiah according to somebody not identified in the program that I could find. Many cuts were made in the original and were often illogical in my view. The story of the work which is why it is so important, was also subsumed by the floridity and exercise of some of the singers, and the fact that somebody thought Messiah was a Symphony concert not an act of supreme worship.
Hopefully in future years, those who are responsible for music in this town will get back to focusing attentions on the real meaning of Messiah, whether at Christmas or any other time of the year. Please do it correctly, or don’t do it at all.
Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist and founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University, and sang locally and internationally in choirs for many years. Read his work at 3dscienceblog.