Handel's Messiah, more than any other work in the repertoire, has been changed by the passage of time. This is not to suggest that the music itself is different; rather, that our experience of it never again can be what its composer intended.
For Messiah is no longer simply a musical masterpiece. It has become part of the annual Christmas pageant, at least in the English-speaking world. Intended as an entertainment, no matter how elevating, it has become a ritual, and, like any ritual, we tend to take it for granted. We nod happily as if greeting an old friend, humming along with the familiar moments, then pondering the possibilities for dinner. Ritual becomes ritual because of its regularity, its place in the usual rhythm of our lives. Whereas an artwork is something to be confronted: it challenges us, wrenches us out of the normal run of life's passage.
Any art that exists, as all music does, only in time, must be created anew each time it is performed. Unlike a painting, which exists in space, a piece of music cannot be placed in a museum for leisurely study: This is both music's blessing and its curse. A blessing because this ensures that the true experience of the wok involves the active participation of both creators and audience, without either of whom the work could not come to exist. A curse, because the experience is so fleeting, and can never be recaptured - yes, there are recording, but they bear about as much resemblance to an actual musical event as a magazine photograph of the Sistine Chapel ceiling does to the real thing.
To consider Messiah as a work of art rather than a rite, we must dislodge it from its expected place within the Christmas season. Thus, a performance in January, especially one in which everyone present is a participant, can enable us to experience this great masterpiece in as pure a state as possible. We can examine its proportions, the balance of its various parts, the function of the choral movements among the solo elements (and vice-versa), all while involving ourselves in its creation. It might help to remind ourselves the Messiah was never intended as a Christmas work at all; As were all of Handel's English oratorios, its intended season was Lent, for then the opera houses were closed. Its proper season is Easter time.
To introduce this "cooperative" performance of Messiah, we present the Fourth Part of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, a work most definitely meant to be part of a ritual. Composed to be performed during Lutheran church services in Leipzig at Christmas time in 1734-35, it is in six parts: For the first three days of Christmas, New Year's Day (the Feast of the Circumcision), the First Sunday in the New Year, and the Feast of Epiphany.
Handel is well known for "parody", the process of re-using music originally written for a different text or occasion. Several of the Messiah choruses were originally duets from two of Handel's Italian cantatas. "And he shall purify" "For unto us a Child is born", and "His yoke is easy" from Part I, are all such parodies - the awkward text setting in "For unto us" thus becomes understandable as due to something other than Handel's lack of fluency in English. In the Christmas Oratorio was never intended to be performed in its entirety at one sitting, Bach, the ultimate formalist, nevertheless arranged it as a unified whole, with a coherent tonal scheme and symmetrical structure. The Fourth Part, for New Year's Day, is rather different in style from the rest of the oratorio. In F major (the traditional pastoral key) rather than in the oratorio's main key of D (traditionally brilliant and triumphant), it concerns the naming of Jesus, an event somewhat removed from the central Christmas story enunciated in the rest of the work - the progression from the Birth of Jesus to the visit of the Three Wise Men. As in Messiah, and unlike Bach's Passion settings, elements of comment and meditation predominate over drama.
Messiah quickly became an institution, performed annually in London since 1750, still during Handel's lifetime, and only eight years after its first performance in Dublin. Its success owed much, perhaps, to its earthiness: Whereas Bach's sublime moments are encased in ethereal and esoteric music, Handel's are more popular, maybe suggesting to the middle class that the Kingdom of Heaven is just like home.
Along with the Bach, we present a selection of Christmas carols composed or arranged by leading musician of their times: Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Peter Cornelius (an associate of Wagner, he composed The Merry Wives of Windsor, still in the standard operatic repertoire in Germany), and the contemporary English composers John Gardner and John Rutter.
- Jerome Hoberman -