Last year I wrote an arts column for The Post that didn’t make it into print, but as the holiday season is just about upon us, I took a look at this again and updated it for this year:
In the cold early March of 1827, the Viennese physician Andreas Wawruch tried to tell one of his patients, a 56-year-old man suffering from liver failure, that the coming spring would help restore his health.
But Ludwig van Beethoven, who was Wawruch’s patient, knew better. “My day’s work is finished,” he told the doctor. “If there were a physician who could help me” — and here he spoke in English — “’his name shall be called ‘Wonderful.’”
It was a reference to the work of a composer Beethoven venerated, a man whose music, in a beautifully bound complete edition given to him as a gift, helped lighten the burden of his final days. It was also a reference to a specific work by that composer, a piece that is making its usual Christmas appearances at concert halls hereabouts these days.
And yet Messiah isn’t even a Christmas piece. George Frideric Handel (which is how the German-born composer spelled his name in his adopted English homeland) composed it in the late summer of 1741 to be performed during Easter week of the following year. The libretto was devised by a literary man of leisure named Charles Jennens, who stitched it together — with great skill — from Biblical passages to be fashioned as an oratorio.
Messiah was first heard in Dublin in on April 13, 1742 (one year to the day before the birth of Thomas Jefferson in colonial Virginia, to give it added context), to an appreciative audience of about 700 people. Three Irish charities shared in the proceeds, and it soon became the most performed of all the composer’s oratorios.
Most of the readings of Messiah we hear at this time of year include the “Christmas portion” of the work, which is Part One of the three parts, to which is usually added the most extroverted bits of Parts Two (the Hallelujah! chorus) and Three (I know that my Redeemer liveth, A trumpet shall sound, Worthy is the Lamb).
I know of at least four Messiah performances over the next month: The annual Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church production in Fort Lauderdale on Dec. 5; the FAU Chamber Singers and Orchestra on Dec. 7; the Miami-based chamber choir Seraphic Fire on Dec. 19 at the Arsht Center in downtown Miami; and on Dec. 21, the Masterworks Chorus of the Palm Beaches’ annual singalong version at the Royal Poinciana Chapel on Palm Beach.
Thus has it ever been at this time of year. You can hear Messiah any number of times, and I don’t see this tradition dying out anytime soon. And that means all the traditions that go with it, such as standing for the Hallelujah chorus, which every audience I’ve ever seen does promptly. (And it appears to be true that the tradition really did originate with King George II, who found himself so moved by the music that he stood up, thus requiring the rest of the audience to do likewise.)
I, for one, am happy to see this popular work of late Baroque music still speaking with such vitality to today’s audiences. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard this piece in concert, including the complete performances the Florida Philharmonic used to give back in the mid-1990s. I even heard one at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago in the 1970s in which the hall was so crowded that I had to sit sideways in my front-row seat so the cellist across from me could use her bow freely.
People seem to react to it as a truly special part of the holiday ritual, as they do with Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker. Messiah has its moments that are tough going for an audience not used to Baroque practice (accompanied recitative, for instance) and its overall archaic sound. It also seems to me that Messiah is too difficult for many church and community choirs. In an earlier day before radio, television and the Internet, people had more time to spend on making music, but now it’s often just one more thing to multitask.
But the extra indulgence we give to family and friends at this time of year extends to these fortunate works of art, and so music that might normally be reserved for a specialist series of concerts to be enjoyed by a knowledgeable audience , instead is offered up to multitudes, many thousands of whom, no doubt, encounter it for the first time having never heard anything like it.
That would have pleased Jennens and Handel, who meant for the work to be popular. And though we might keep scheduling it for reasons that date to late Victorian choral practice in Britain, certainly some part of it has to do with the special quality of the music.
Or as Edward Synge, the Bishop of Elphin, one of its first listeners, wrote: “It Seems to be a Species of Musick different from any other … the Harmony is so great and open, as to please all who have Ears & will hear, learned & unlearn’d.”