It's Twelfth Night--last night of the Christmas season. This is a piece that I think is a unique piece of writing on classical music. I was reading the January issue of The New Criterion tonight, and there's a review of a book on Handel, which put me in mind of this work. Salon was supposed to run it at Christmastime 2017, but they lost their budget. With all I had going on at the end of last year, I probably didn't an early enough start to find a home for it. So we'll put it here. Maybe I'll do something else with it later.
You’ve been listening to Handel’s Messiah all wrong.
For long enough I’ve felt that a lot of people don’t know what they’re doing when they attend a Christmastime performance of Handel’s Messiah such that I’ve reached a breaking point with the whole not-saying-anything thing. Not out of any spite or classical music rank-pulling, but rather because I’m not sure there are more than a dozen works of art in human history better than Messiah, and people ought to hear it on its terms, or closer to them, even if it’s just that one time.
Chances are, the holiday concert of Messiah you go to will be the lone classical music concert you attend in any year. Chances are also great that I will be there, on my own, because I have no life, as I am at dozens of classical concerts a year, jammed next to a couple comprised of a young woman insisting on doing something cultural—with a round of selfies on social media to prove it—and her meathead boyfriend who clearly would rather be anywhere else.
I know this guy pretty well, given my proximity to his type year in, year out. We’ll be sitting there at Boston’s Symphony Hall, and at some point he will pull out his phone, during something like the beautiful, delicate, sweeping Pifa instrumental section, going so far as to start mumbling, as one recently did, “Go Gronk, go,” when Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski caught a Tom Brady pass in the flats.
Look: I want Gronk to go as much as anyone. But if you are this make of person, you need to check your meathead predilections downstairs with you coat. Because the reality is, Messiah is not some stodgy, antiquated work for people over-packing God’s waiting room; it has more flat out tunes than just about anything I can think of, and it’s lively and robust and almost impossible not to dance to in parts.
This year, we’re marking the 275th anniversary of its premiere in Dublin, on April 13. Confused by the date? That’s because Handel never thought of Messiah as a Christmas-endemic work; his thinking was that it was a piece for any period of the year, with a strong association with charity and, if we’re picking a holiday, Easter.
He wrote it fast—in about three weeks. As we live in an age where we celebrate how slowly we go with the tasks we have to tend to—calling this taking the right amount of time to get things correct, rather than what it is really is, that being our soul-sucking indolence and anxiety—Handel would probably be charged with some degree of carelessness now, followed by the inevitable envy that anyone could write something this great that fast.
He had a lot of ideas and motifs running through his head, but you see this, interestingly, with some of our most tuneful long-form classical pieces. Perhaps you’ll be at a performance of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker; note how there comes a point where it feels like the ballet becomes a talent competition, with each set of dancers having a turn at a musical number/set-piece very different from the last. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is another collage work, with bits of ideas from years going into its construction. And so it goes with Messiah, which I think of as Handel’s good-spirited version of the White Album.
Now, I know you what you think you know is the most melodic, awesome part of Messiah, even if you know next to nothing about Messiah, or even if you’re a veteran of the oratorio. That would be the Hallelujah chorus. Do you know what you’re missing out on if the Hallelujah chorus is your big, OMG Here It Comes moment of Messiah? You’re not only missing out on the best part of Messiah, you’re missing out on what I will call the most orgastic, joyous, overwhelmingly emotional, powerful, topless and bottomless, all-out-life-affirming/soul-growing moment in all of classical music history. Hell, screw that: all of any kind of musical history. More on that in a second.
The Hallelujah chorus is an opportunity, alas, for the classical concertgoer’s version of virtue signaling. Now, I’m thinking many of these people, like, ninety-nine percent of them, don’t have a rack of Messiah performances at their homes that they cycle through over the course of the year. If you did, you’d notice that the ensembles used to be huge, which is what Handel never wanted, with choirs the size of small towns. The trend in more recent years is to go smaller, keeping with Handel’s vision; well, his revised vision, post-Dublin premiere, for at that premiere his Messiah was almost skeletal. Think of it like a demo version.
Nonetheless, many of these people are going to stand during the Hallelujah chorus, having their, “look at me! I know about classical music!” moment. My Gronk-loving bro saw his girlfriend shoot up from her seat when she saw, confusedly, that many others were starting to stand, and he was sufficiently worried when he saw me remaining in mine that he made a little gesture with his hand for me to rise and uttered the clarion admonitory call of the bro with the word, “dude…”
I’m afraid I let him down that day. The story—which is likely apocryphal—is that King George II heard himself some Hallelujah chorus, and got so moved that he bolted up from his chair and stood on his feet throughout its airing. Great. The chorus has been co-opted these days as a shopworn reminder that Christmas is upon us, and it’s also used sardonically when a sports team that is usually rubbish at something manages not to be for a given play. The Hallelujah chorus now signifies—and Lord knows I hate the word—snark.
But let us return to the giant orgasm. That comes—settle down—at the end and goes by the name of the Amen chorus. Part of Handel’s genius was that he realized that not only could words function as music—I mean, Proust knew this, Dickens knew this, Keats knew this—but that their syllabic components could function as music, too, and be used as sonic architecture in such a way as to create something vaster and richer than the mere, unbroken usage of words could, in the right setting. With the Amen chorus, Handel found that setting.
A lot of people leave after the Hallelujah chorus. It comes near the end, it marks the close of a section so the ensemble stops to rest and retune, and people have been at the hall for a while by then.
When the bro got up to leave, his fetching girlfriend gave me another look of confusion, at which I kind of nodded in the negative, fighting back the urge to say, “Look, leave this Gronk obsessive behind, we might have a future, you and I, and some culture, and I can do the Patriots thing…” But no. Bad enough I’m there on my own. Don’t need to compound that with craziness.
But they sat back down, and that was good, considering what awaited. The Amen chorus starts at a low volume, with the faintest sounding of the word “amen.” There will be, in a sense, no other words used. It will be that one broken down, resembled, sang in different tones, hues, levels of volumes, voice groupings. The sound comes from all sides as it builds. You look at the stage, and throughout, everyone is singing, and yet, as the seconds pass, it gets louder and louder.
That’s kind of a misleading word, like something sonically assaultive is happening; volume, after all, is aggressive. This is not aggressive. What Handel is capping, in essence, is a tantric session of not just all of humanity, but a single soul engaged with the world, making a world.
Every single soul. There is a difference between saying, “the souls of all of us,” and “the souls of each of us.” This is the musical incarnation of that second idea, the one that makes life a miracle, of sorts, when one lives it deeply, truly, balls to the wall. The courage to be a chorus unto one’s self.
As you listen, you wonder, maybe, for a second, where this is going to end, but you know, in some part of your being, where it must, where it should. I cannot get over the spiritual intensity of the Amen chorus, just as how I cannot get over its eroticism, a simultaneous climax between music, listeners, and whatever lives in the air around us and the ether above that we have not names for.
The chorus ends on a single, sustained chord, which surceases on a downbeat of air. Finis. And we are returned back to our world. But not all of us. Not in quite the same way. I looked back at mini-Gronk just in time to hear him mouth the word “mother---.” Yes, motherf--- indeed, my good sir. Worlds in a word. Amen.