“The effect is horrible: And everybody declares it sublime,” said George Bernard Shaw of the massed “Messiah” performances of the Victorian age. “Handel is not a mere composer in England: he is an institution…the audience stands up, as if in church, while the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus is being sung. It is the nearest sensation to the elevation of the Host known to the English protestants.”
An open-and-shut case? Handel’s “Messiah” represents the stuffiest, stupidest parts of classical music culture. Anglo-Saxon obstinacy about tradition; dour, featureless spectacle; the homiletic bloody-mindedness of crowds. “Messiah” is so well-worn—it has the equine whiff of a waxed Barbour jacket—that there is even a Twitter bingo card about it, enumerating its many kinks.
“The true sound of Christmas approaching in this country,” tweeted singer Paul Carey Jones, “is that of a bass-baritone, perhaps no longer in the first flush of youth, attempting to remember how to sing coloratura.” A clapped-out piece, from a clapped-out tradition, for clapped-out singers—Shirely it hath given us enough grief?
Fear not. I bring you tidings of great joy. “Messiah” isn’t just good: It’s essential; a communitarian work of art that represents the best of music-making in miserable times.
As Shaw complained, audiences love “Messiah.” Its choruses are beefy and satisfying. The counterpoint isn’t as complex or celestial as Bach’s, but it is used to great effect. On the text “He shall purify the sons of Levi,” the parts enter and spit out their jagged coloratura, before suddenly coming together dramatically in a breakout moment that roars with Old Testament menace: “That they may offer, unto the Lord, an offering in righteousness.” The fugal machinations start again, just after the downbeat, a sudden gust of prophetic fury. The final peroration of the piece, the “Amen” fugue, contains a similar moment of spellbinding textural drama. Suddenly the chorus and orchestra fall away to leave only the violins playing the tune. It’s a moment of cinematic close up, a single face in the crowd, before the entire chorus and orchestra comes crashing in, as if the camera has suddenly panned away to reveal a great vista.
Unlike other oratorios by Handel–“Jeptha,” “Israel in Egypt”–the narrative of “Messiah” isn’t firmly bolted on to particular places or events (besides the nativity sequence). There aren’t any named characters. It is to Christian eschatology what “The Muppet Christmas Carol” is to Charles Dickens: less theology, more vibes.
This is music of adulation and reflection. Often the piece is incorrectly called “The Messiah,” but is properly titled just “Messiah.” The lack of a definite article is key. The work isn’t necessarily bound to one particular messiah, and this vagueness opens an imaginative door to all sorts of audiences, both secular and religious, freeing them to put their own experiences into the work.
Handel’s emotional brushstrokes are equally broad. We might think of the generalized world-weary frustration of “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?,” and the naked aggression of “He trusted in God,” whose counterpoint summons a chorus of mocking voices with such viciousness. In John Eliot Gardiner’s recording, the very final words are practically spat.
So too “Surely he hath borne our griefs”: “He was wounded for our transgressions,/He was bruised for our iniquities.” Handel’s word-setting is remarkably precise, on jerky rhythms evoking the restless unease of a guilty conscience. He shines his harmonic light on the word our. The basses leap to a high D-flat, which clashes painfully, pathetically, with the C in the soprano part. When people say “Messiah” is a community work, it is this moment—that word our—that springs to mind. It is about communities as much as it is for them: their capacity for cruelty, and the burdens of guilt and responsibility they carry.
As I mentioned, the “Messiah” appears bound up by a kind of Englishness: freezing provincial churches, fidgeting children on rock-hard pews, proper middle class ladies serving up sweet sherry. But the piece has a more cosmopolitan and polyglot life than that. When George Frederick Handel—or more properly Georg Friedrich Händel—wrote “Messiah,” he was a German based in London, inventing a form (English oratorio) that reworked Italian operatic conventions for a Dublin audience. Performances deployed a crack team of international soloists, such as Italian castrato Gaetano Guadagni.
The host of Italians whom Handel brought in to sing his music must have brought their own distinctive accents and nuances to an English text already inflected by other ways of speaking. “Surely he hath borne our griefs” sets the first word in a notoriously challenging way. Handel writes a dotted rhythm followed by a quarter note, so a two-syllable word becomes three: “su-re-ly.” John Butt, director of the Dunedin Consort, tells me that this could be an instance of Handel’s imperfect English making its way into the music (in the grand tradition of alternative “Messiah” lyrics, he offers, “Shirley—she has worn our briefs!”).
It’s a striking textual trace of the work’s multilingual background, the work of an immigrant in a foreign land. Butt recalls doing a performance of the work in Spain with 500 singers; the imperfections in their English pronunciation were lively and charming.
The work’s international popularity means these linguistic sparks continue to fly.
“Messiah” is a meeting place. The annual performances of the work worldwide are less concerts than rituals. “The piece is like the Royal Family,” Gavin Carr, who leads the Philharmonia Chorus—where, full disclosure, I am a member—tells me. Carr adds, “but without the divorce.” It’s a piece that brings together all kinds of different musicians, a crossroads where amateurs get to share the stage with professional soloists. There is a sense of common purpose that transcends ability or fee.
Performers have to renew their relationship with the piece every time they play it, Carr tells me. “It’s like that film ‘50 First Dates,’ where Adam Sandler has to romance the girl with short-term memory loss over and over again. We have a sort of memory-wipe each year.”
“Messiah” is like an omnipresent old friend. This feeling of ownership comes from professional familiarity. But it is also hardwired into Handel’s vocal writing, which sits so naturally in body and voice, and makes it approachable for amateurs. The high notes aren’t too taxing, but always satisfying to sing enthusiastically. Handel often starts off a chorus in the middle of the voice before stretching you a bit with the counterpoint; he will help you find the first note of an entry by telegraphing it clearly in another part.
Carr says, “Each vocal line reflects some essential quality of that particular part. Handel understood the being that is a singer. We’re basses, we like to hold a pedal and feel the fifths rising above us. We don’t like to move too fast unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
This accessible writing makes the work reliable and comforting. Like the famous mishearing of Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” (“Excuse me, while I kiss this guy”), “Messiah” has its own auditory slips that have passed into legend. The piece’s opening sounds like “Come for tea, my people.” Like the best jokes, this captures something essential: the association of the “Messiah” with a certain kind of buttoned-up, middlebrow Englishness; a ceremony of cultural life as vital as putting the kettle on. Both “Messiah” and tea offer comfort, warmth, reassurance, and the promise of hospitality. What is more steadying in the gloom and uncertainty of winter than something familiar?
In a similar vein, the “Messiah” has a steadying effect on musicians’ careers. Carr prepared the Philharmonia Chorus for two performances of “Messiah” on December 15 in London’s Royal Albert Hall. It’s an annual engagement. Carr has done a lot of “Messiah”: 70 to 100 performances, he estimates, either as a soloist, conductor, or chorus master. These numbers are not unusual: Butt, who performed “Messiah” in London on December 18, estimates he’s done 120; Nicholas Mulroy, a tenor with Dunedin, is sure he’s “heading towards three figures.”
Carr teaches the oratorio course at London’s Royal Academy of Music. They always begin with “Messiah.” “It’s absolutely vital for singers economically,” he tells me. “You may do one or two Bach Passions a year, but you’ll get offers for five or six ‘Messiahs.’” A cursory look at major venues in London indicates that in the last two weeks I could’ve attended ten performances of the piece, in various configurations: 90 singers in the Royal Albert Hall; just ten at Wigmore Hall with Dunedin. It is as commercial and multitudinous as the festive period itself. There are at least ten versions conductors can draw on.
Besides its economic value for professionals, “Messiah” is a synecdoche for a living tradition of amateur music-making. There are two million people in the UK who sing in choirs. The choral societies and community choruses that have made “Messiah” their own represent a pugnacious, rough-and-ready counterweight to the authorized and exclusive tradition of Oxbridge college choral singing, all straight tone and backlit divinity. “There is an unbroken line through England’s choral history,” Alexandra Coghlan wrote in the Spectator, “but it doesn’t run through our cathedrals…it’s in halls where choral societies and symphony choruses get out the same scruffy copies of ‘Messiah’…year after year.”
The groups that gather to sing these “Messiahs” were forged in the crucible of the industrial revolution. The “refiner’s fire” of the first alto aria should really have the ferrous tang of the iron foundry or Yorkshire steelworks. “Messiah” is a regular reference point for Jonathan Rose in his book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes when he discusses amateur music-making in the 19th and 20th centuries. “In the mills of Blackburn weavers rehearsed the ‘Messiah’ and ‘Elijah’ over the roar of the looms,” he writes. Welsh miners named their children after Handel.
Singing “Messiah” in these contexts was a pretext for communities to retain a space for something different in lives dominated by wage labor. It was a way of taking back their time and dignity. “Messiah” is all about transformation, the promise of a new world on the other side of degradation. For these communities that was something grasped through European art music as well as faith: “The trumpet shall sound,” the bass soloist sings, “and we shall be changed.”
This history is a reminder of what it means to share something, especially at Christmastime. The Dunedin Consort sang “Messiah” at Wigmore Hall on December 18, with an approach that heightens the work’s communal side.
Deploying only ten voices, there was no separation between soloists and chorus, with each taking turns in recitative and aria. Tenor Nicholas Mulroy tells me, “If you have someone saying the words of both persecuted and persecutor…you’re making the audience more conscious of the idea of complicity.” (It would be remiss not to recall Handel’s own complicity with the slave trade, as a wealthy investor, in this context.)
Perhaps the most tender description of emotional adaptability of “Messiah,” its sensitive openness to context and place, comes from Mulroy. “Right now, it’s the beginning that is really moving,” he says. He goes on: “Singing those first words directly to the audience, ‘Comfort Ye, my people,’ is saying that everything is going to be OK.… It feels particularly important to the audience at the moment.”
At time of writing, the UK, and the world, is facing down more restrictions on gathering. These may yet make coming together for something like “Messiah” impossible. When we can gather together again, it will be waiting for us. ¶
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