On Handel’s Messiah

My particular religious upbringing precludes me from speaking about Christmas with any authority. But December’s inescapable tinsel and mistletoe give any citizen the right to an opinion.

Among my earliest musical memories are the Christmas concerts Robert Shaw conducted in Cleveland during the 1950s and 60s. Seeing Mr. Shaw’s newer Atlanta Symphony version of those concerts, on television some years back, quickly reduced me to tears. I can do without Bing Crosby, but I’m a sucker for Rosemary Clooney singing “White Christmas.” However, in my line of work, Christmas time is Messiah time. Every year brings a spate of new recordings of Handel’s popular masterpiece; many of them add little to our understanding of the music, although for the record (pun intended) my personal favorite is Colin Davis’ 1966 version with the London Symphony.

The biggest problem with Messiah has nothing to do with the music. Rather, it’s the fact that the Christmas story takes up only twenty of its one hundred forty minutes. The rest is concerned with Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. So why doesn’t the Messiah deluge come at Easter? Have we had it backwards all these years?

Truth be told, it doesn’t matter, because Handel couldn’t have cared less. Like Irving Berlin, he was a practical man, and he wrote Messiah at a time when his nearly empty bank account mattered more to him than his place in history. The London public had grown tired of Italian opera’s obscure stories, sung in a foreign language. Oratorios like Messiah got Handel back his audience, thanks to their familiar Biblical words sung in English, without costly sets or costumes.

In the nineteenth century, Messiah became much more than a meal ticket. The general attitude in Victorian England was that if hearing Messiah was good for you, performing it with hundreds of other like-minded amateurs was even better; one such performance featured a chorus of 2700, accompanied by an orchestra of a mere 460 players.

In recent decades, we’ve gotten back to basics. Concern for historically informed performances of Baroque music has restored Messiah’s proper proportions, if occasionally robbed it of its vitality. Remarkably, regardless of how it’s performed--or even how well--Messiah seems virtually indestructible, a piece whose message of hope can warm even this old Scrooge’s heart.


KWMU commentary 1993, revised 2019