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America’s Messiah

Jerry Blackstone conducts Handel's Messiah

Jerry Blackstone conducts Handel’s Messiah

For musicians, Christmas means Messiah. This is not a comment upon musicians’ religiosity, but rather upon their finances. Messiah, Handel’s Messiah, is to America’s choral societies and orchestras what La Bohème is to its opera houses and Nutcracker to its ballets: the guaranteed full house that can bankroll a whole season of deficits. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, Handel’s oratorio receives hundreds of performances, from church choirs with organ accompaniment to major symphonies with their professional choruses.

With over sixty recorded versions available, classic sections of music stores become at Christmas little more than appendages to tables stacked with Messiahs: early music versions, Mozart’s reorchestrated version, Shaw’s, Pinnock’s, Marriner’s. The “Christian-Contemporary music” crowd has even cashed-in with a pop version called “The Young Messiah” (a version that has roughly the same regard for the original as Attila the Hun had for historic preservation). The Lord Jesus may have had many things to say about mammon, but at Christmas at least, Messiah pays, and pays well.

But why, from Bangor to San Diego, do average Americans who would otherwise not listen to a note of classical music year after year make performances of this oratorio sell-outs? Why do they go? And what is the effect of Messiah‘s popularity upon our musical culture?

Certainly the primary reason for the oratorio’s appeal lies in the quality of Handel’s music itself. Messiah must rank as one of the greatest musical achievements of the eighteenth century. For all its misuse (I particularly remember Mobil using it to hail their motor oil), the “Hallelujah Chorus” remains a masterpiece of musical structure, the magnificence of the music not being the result of bombast, but rather the logical outcome of Handel’s manipulation of antiphonal effects, stunning unisons, divided familiar-style and contrapuntal writing, and superimposed textures. The final chorus (“Worthy is the Lamb”) contains choral writing the imagination of which would not be rivaled until Wagner composed Lohengrin four generations later, and the aria “Behold and See” is a model of economy and pathos. In its fifteen measures Handel seems to set the anguish of the whole world.

But it’s not just the music. Great though Messiah may be, it can be argued that Handel’s best work lies elsewhere. With some justification, cognoscenti are quick to prefer his Italian operas to his English oratorios. During Handel’s lifetime, Judas Maccabaeus was more popular than Messiah, and the Reverend Charles Jennens, who provided Handel with Messiah‘s word book, liked the music in Samson much better. Late in life, the composer himself is reported to have said that his oratorio Theodora contained better writing. While Messiah is a masterpiece, it is but one of many from Handel’s pen, masterpieces that have not endured so steadfastly as Messiah. Why?

I think the answer lies in the fact that for the last two hundred years, English-speaking Christianity, and in particular, American Christianity, has found a singularly eloquent vehicle for self-reflection in Messiah. Despite much talk to the contrary, religion remains deeply important to most Americans. But as many writers have noted, that religiosity is not denominational or even confessional in nature. Instead, it is individualistic, a matter of personal belief and individual choice not dictated by bishops, mediated by ritual, or regulated by the state. Furthermore, American Christianity is deeply eschatological, the sense of the impending eschaton being not so much a dread premonition of a coming doom, but rather a purposeful optimism. Americans work for and expect the eventual establishment of the kingdom of God, that “city on a hill.” 

Messiah speaks to such a Christianity. Although reminiscent of the lectionary texts from Advent through Trinity from the Book of Common Prayer, the oratorio cannot be said to be denominational (although the lack of passages dealing with Mary certainly gives it a distinctly Protestant cast). Its biblical texts are equally accessible to Episcopalians and National Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals, and until fairly recently, could be said to be known by heart by almost all. Unlike Bach’s cantatas and passions, the oratorio requires neither a liturgical setting nor a particular occasion for it to be grasped. And despite the current custom of abridged Christmas performances (an aberration largely the result of reduced attention spans), the oratorio is not seasonal. If the work points to anything at all, it is neither Christmas nor Easter but rather the Second Coming and the individual’s faith in Christ’s eventual triumph.

Messiah is a concert work for the concert hall, and very much in the mold of the modern Protestant sermon, which entertains its listener for the purpose of edifying him. Like his contemporary George Whitefield (who was also criticized for using theatrical devices for religious ends), Handel uses the conventions of the theater to compel his listener into a personal encounter with the scriptural texts. Messiah, contrary to most critics’ readings, is highly dramatic. But its drama is an interior one, a personal confrontation between the individual listener and the story of salvation that Handel unfolds before him. To a population where that confrontation is the fulcrum of their lives, performances of Messiah become almost autobiographical.

It is because of the religious character of Americans that Messiah is so important here. And because of that religious character, it can be said that Messiah forms the foundation of America’s art music culture. Not only do performances of the oratorio undergird the finances of many of the country’s performing organizations, the work itself is the entrance of tens of thousands into the realm of classical music. It is not only the one classical piece that almost everyone will recognize (hence Madison Avenue’s shameless exploitation of it), but in many cases it is the only major classical piece that most amateur musicians will themselves perform. My own case is not unusual. Messiah was the first piece of classical music I heard live, the first one I performed as an amateur singer, and the first one I conducted as a professional musician.

The cultural significance of Handel and his Messiah for American music cannot be overstated. But it is a significance not universally welcomed. For roughly a generation, there has been a movement among musicologists to de-Christianize Handel, a by-product of which would be the reduction of Messiah to just one more religious work by a composer who really knew better. In 1966, the biographer Paul Henry Lang felt compelled to invent a string of mistresses for Handel (thereby making him “normal”). In 1980, Winton Dean, while acknowledging the “sincerity” of Handel’s Christian beliefs, concluded that he was really a pantheist and hedonist at heart. More recently, writers have argued for a homosexual Handel as part of a queer studies agenda for political and social revolution. Handel, a life-long bachelor, is proving to be fertile ground for a kind of airy scholarship that prefers virtuosic innuendo to unambiguous historic data.

The most generous thing one can say about the argument for the “gay” Handel is that it is interesting but tenuous in the extreme. But the stakes in the argument are high, for deconstructive musicology makes a farce of Western civilization by falsifying its contours. What is absolutely certain about Handel—from nearly all contemporaneous sources—is not his sexuality, but rather the blamelessness of his business dealings, the absence of gossip regarding his private life (remarkable for a man as much in the public eye as he was), and—particularly in his later years—the pronounced seriousness with which he took his religion. Very little of this informs the portrait of the “gay” Handel. But historic veracity is not really these writers’ goal. Their interest is not in Handel the artist, but rather in Handel the tool, Handel the cog in a machine to denigrate traditional Western moral values. A chaste Christian Handel is of no use in such a campaign, but a gay pagan Handel, a closet libertine who wrote oratorios with whose texts he had no real engagement, very much would be.

“Handel” is a battlefield in the culture wars—in a way that Schubert isn’t—because of Messiah. With a note of personal triumph, a colleague recently told of a Christian student who after taking his class on Handel said that she would never be able to listen to Messiah again. Score one for politicized scholarship. Of course that poor student was not only misinformed about Handel, but mistaken to value a work only because of the character of its creator. Yet there is a truth to her rejection. Try as we may, it isn’t so easy to separate “the dancer from the dance.” Should the revisionists be successful in promoting their deconstructed Handel, I suspect that the public attitude toward Messiah would be changed too. It also might not sell as well, and that certainly would be a pity.
Originally published in First Things, December, 1997

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