What shall I play? The Tallis Scholars singing Christmas carols or Trinity Church's "Messiah?" I opt for "Messiah," and soon the familiar overture fills my tiny office. This calls for a candle, so I light one, and then I decide that Messiah will be my morning prayer today; I will save today's scripture readings and psalms for evening prayer. It is "Messiah's" first airing for me this Advent, always something of an occasion. Once in a while I sneak in an illicit summer performance, but I usually try to keep "Messiah" in season.
Actually, it's only a Christmas piece for us. Handel didn't think it was one -- it premiered in the month of April, and Trinity's Owen Burdick tells me that the composer himself never conducted it during the Christmas season, not even once. This is by no means a reason to retreat from our December "Messiah" traditions -- any work of art is on its own after it has left the artist's hands, and the ages that follow add to it, make it more--and sometimes less -- than it was.
So "Messiah" long ago became the ecclesiastical "Nutcracker," that piece musical directors will do, whether they want to or not. In some places, you can pay for a fair amount of the new stuff you really want to try with what you'll make from your "Messiah," and your balance sheet at the end the year will be something you can go your higher-ups with and not feel like a naughty child who has emptied her piggy bank.
Oh, yeah -- it's way too familiar. Sings itself, we feel -- although certain of its passages are deceptive in that regard, and one would be very foolish to think one could just phone it in. But the most jaded choir singer, the weariest conductor, the most sophisticated audience -- we all become excited by "Messiah" all the same: by its baroque trumpets if we can afford them, by its inviting recitatives, by its soloists and the decisions they make about how much embroidery they will do, and upon what they will embroider. The decisions the conductor makes about volume and tempo -- where we will be surprised, and how.
Out into the dark night of the near-solstice we go after the performance, "Rejoice Greatly" or "And He Shall Purfiy" filling our heads. "Messiah" has taken a couple of our precious hours --we still have so much shopping and wrapping and baking to do! Was it really a good idea to take the time?
Absolutely. It was the best ever.
This Sunday, December 10 : A wonderful day at St. Luke's in Metuchen, NJ. Sermons by Barbara Crafton at 8 and 10am, the choir concert at 4 and the famously delicious parish dinner afterwards. Call 732-548-4308 for concert and dinner reservations.
Also this Sunday: the Christmas season can be a hard one for many people. It is hard in a special way for parents whose children have died. This Sunday at 7pm, candles will be lit in homes worldwide in memory of children who left this beautiful world much too soon. Consider lighting one yourself, in solidarity with those who have sustained this terrible loss, and don't forget to reach out to a bereaved parent you know. Don't be afraid to bring it up first -- that beloved name may break the heart, but that doesn't mean it's not music to the ears. And the heart was broken, anyway. News flash: broken hearts still beat.