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Day 19: Handel’s Messiah

Messiah is not a typical Handel oratorio; there are no named characters, as are usually found in Handel’s setting of the Old Testament stories, possibly to avoid charges of blasphemy. It is a meditation rather than a drama of personalities, lyrical in method; the narration of the story is carried on by implication, and there is no dialogue. — Christopher Hogwood Oratorio (n.) “long musical composition, usually with a text based on Scripture,” 1727 (in English from 1640s in native form oratory), from Italian oratorio (late 16c.), from Church Latin oratorium (see oratory (n.2)), in reference to musical services in the church of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Rome, where old mystery plays were adapted to religious services. -Online Etymology Dictionary

We hum along with it, that famous chorus, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” whenever it filters through the season. My sister-in-law goes every year to hear and sing along downtown at the “Do it Yourself Messiah.” My children, having heard it in commercials and youtube videos and department stores at Christmas time, will break into “Hallelujah!” repeated in the style of the that chorus when getting what they want or upon discovering something new and amazing.

I played that famous piece from Handel’s Messiah in Orchestra every year in High School at the annual Winter Concert.  To this day I can still hum the cello part to the Hallelujah Chorus.  My senior year, I straddled the Senior Chorus and first chair of the Orchestra. I was given the choice of which place I’d perform that year, on the stage singing or in the pit. As was typical of me I chose to play, relishing my first chair status though there were only three of us in the section. In the chorus I’d be one of many 2nd Sopranos, lost in the crowd.

And yet as I read today about Handel’s Messiah and about what makes it so powerful, so different from other Oratorios of its time I’m struck by this idea that there are no characters in the piece. The narrative is carried by combination of voice and instrument, each note woven beautifully within the piece, like hands held, like arms embracing, like flesh knitted together. As I read and reflect on this I am, of course, reminded as Christmas comes nearer of the Word made flesh, of that very child knitted together in the womb of the Theotokos, the “reason for the season.”

But more than that, I’m reminded of the power of us. I become too easily convinced throughout the year of the value of my own rugged, autonomous, individualistic persona. I revert to the “do it yourself” version of things because it feels safer. I draw back and pull away from the reliance I might have on other people, on my community, on my fellow-man. I am afraid of operating in concert with other people. I am afraid of playing poorly or being lost in the crowd of faces who all sing the same part. I am afraid of being injured and afraid of being lonely and afraid of engaging and risking. I forget about the power inherent in the well-timed tap of the conductor, the sharing of our voices, the staccato of the violin and woodwind, the low droning of the bass and brass, the fluid motion of the cello, the full concert we offer when we realize we’re in this together.

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