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You Can't Handel the Truth: A Holiday Tradition

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A few years back, I wrote about new discoveries surrounding the holiday classic, Handel's "Messiah." Several months later, I followed it up with additional revelations. Given that 'tis its season yet again, it seems like a fine time to repeat the story, as just another of the many holiday traditions. Sort of like a very early, 18th century version of "The Grinch."

But have a glass of nog, as well. Fa la la...

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Over the passage of years, we lose track of the conditions that existed when artworks were created. When those years become centuries, the history vanishes, and all that remains is the work itself.

That is, until someone researches that history, and puts the piece in its original context.

And that brings up Handel's "Messiah."

By any standard, it's a brilliant piece of music, which has understandably lasted 250 years. Even to those who don't share its religious underpinning, the music is enthralling, and part of the celebration of the Christmas season.

Oops.

Now comes this detailed, deeply-researched article in the New York Times by Michael Marissen.

"So 'Messiah' lovers may be surprised to learn that the work was meant not for Christmas but for Lent, and that the 'Hallelujah' chorus was designed not to honor the birth or resurrection of Jesus but to celebrate the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in A.D. 70. For most Christians in Handel's day, this horrible event was construed as divine retribution on Judaism for its failure to accept Jesus as God's promised Messiah."

Oops.

Mr. Marissen does an impressive, scholarly and even-handed job uncovering the history of Handel's "Messiah." If anyone is interested in that history, do read the article. At the very least, read it before stating an opinion on it...

To be clear, this is not about political correctness. This is about correctness.

The truth, we are told, shall set us free. Either we go out of our way to learn the truth in our lives -- and embrace it -- or we bury our heads in the sand and listen to the sounds of gravel.

People will still listen to Handel's "Messiah" for centuries to come, whatever the reality behind it. The music is glorious. The words? Well, to be honest, it's a fair bet that most people don't know exactly what's being sung about anyway -- it's 2-1/2 hours, for goodness sake. Most fans wouldn't listen to American Idol for that long. People tend to tune out Handel's "Messiah" about six minutes in and let the music wash over them. When the "Hallelujah Chorus" is about to begin, they get nudged and sit up straight. And even at that, the only words most people know are "Hallelujah" and that it will "reign forever and ever." (Some people probably think it's about Noah's Ark.)

So, in some ways, the libretto of Handel's "Messiah" is not of critical importance 250 years after the fact. And that might be the biggest joke on Charles Jennings, who wrote the text and apparently saw the work as a way to confront what he believed was "a serious menace" in the world. By having his friend Handel set his pointed tracts to music, Jennings felt that would help get his point across more subtly to the public. The result, of course, was that the spectacular music swamped over the words, and over time they took on a completely different meaning.

This is known as the Law of Unintended Consequences. Or also, be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

Somewhere up in heaven, or more likely down in hell, Charles Jennings has been pounding his head against a wall for the last couple hundred Christmases, screaming, "No, no, no! Don't you people get it?!! It's supposed to be about celebrating the destruction of heathen nations, not the embracing love of mankind. You people are so lame!"

And it gets worse, because starting the day after Christmas -- until the next Christmas when Handel's "Messiah" starts playing again -- Jennings berates himself all year, wondering if he screwed up his work and didn't make it clear. Like maybe he used too many metaphors, or commas. Or perhaps in Scene 6, when he wrote, "Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron," he should have explained who "them" was or described a different bludgeon.

No doubt there will be some people aghast by the revelations (no matter how valid) about the writing of Handel's "Messiah." I also have no doubt that almost all those who are aghast have never sat through the 2-1/2 hour work. Nor that most of those ever paid attention to what the precise words actually were. But they will be aghast anyway.

On the other hand, most people who have sat and sat through a 2-1/2 hour performance of Handel's "Messiah" likely welcome having an excuse now not to have to do so again.

Mr. Marissen concludes his study with a thought on the subject.

"While still a timely, living masterpiece that may continue to bring spiritual and aesthetic sustenance to many music lovers, Christian or otherwise, 'Messiah' also appears to be very much a work of its own era. Listeners might do well to ponder exactly what it means when, in keeping with tradition, they stand during the 'Hallelujah' chorus."

And while singing along, they might want to add a "Hallelujah" for the truth, as well.

And that, I thought, was the end of the story. But it wasn't.

A few months later, while reading Volume 9 of Will and Ariel Durant's majestic Story of Civilization, entitled "The Age of Voltaire," I came upon their extensive discussion of Handel. After the passage on "The Messiah," the Durants continue on with the composer's life and eventually reach five years later, April of 1747, when Handel had hit hard times. Not only had he written a string of failures and needed to close his theater, but he went into a sort of retirement, and rumor passed that he may even gone insane, though perhaps it might have been mental exhaustion. (The Earl of Shaftesbury remarked, "Poor Handel looks a little better. I hope he will recover completely, though his mind has been entirely deranged.") However there was yet more to Handel -- and to the story relating somewhat to the controversy today about "The Messiah." The Durants write --

... Handel, now sixty years old, responded with all his powers to an invitation from the Prince of Wales to commemorate the victory of the Prince's younger brother, the Duke of Cumberland, over the Stuart forces at Culloden. Handel took as a symbolic subject Judas Maccabaeus' triumph (166-161 B.C.) over the Hellenizing schemes of Antiochus IV. The new oratorio was so well received (April 1, 1747) that it bore five repetitions in its first season. The Jews of London, grateful to see one of their national heroes so nobly celebrated, helped to swell the attendance, enabling Handel to present the oratorio forty times before his death. Grateful for this new support, he took most of his oratorio subjects henceforth from Jewish legend or history: Alexander Balus, Joshua, Susanna, Solomon and Jephtha. By contrast, Theodora, a Christian theme, drew so small an audience that Handel ruefully remarked, "There was room enough to dance."


No doubt, Charles Jennings, author of the text for "The Messiah," is spinning even faster and deeper in his grave. But quality does win out over time. And so does transcending decency. And that, perhaps, in part, and in the end, may well be what we're left with.

Hallelujah, indeed.

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Robert J. Elisberg's new comic novella, A Christmas Carol 2: The Return of Scrooge, is currently #3 on Amazon's Hot New Releases in Humor (though by the time you read this, it could be #65). It is available in paperback and ebook edition, the latter perfect as a last-minute Christmas gift for those who are reading this and suddenly realize they forgot to do all their holiday shopping.