My wife and I went to a performance of Messiah last night, as we have done every year for the last forty or so. This year it was Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Québec, at the new Montreal Symphony Hall. Perhaps it is the forty years, or my age, or my familiarity with the words after all this time. But I have never seen four soloists tell the story as these did. They were consummate actors as well as musicians and singers.
Or perhaps the evening was more emotional than usual because we learned right there in the hall that Bernard Labadie, the founding director of Les Violons, has been ill and would not be conducting. Instead Trevor Pinnock is leading the group for the rest of the year. Maestro Pinnock made a short announcement about how we have all come to love Messiah, about how something special happens when we gather like this, about how the work is a gift to humanity, and about how tonight we are all here celebrating it together for Bernard as well as for ourselves.
Perhaps that was the context for me: listening to the story, the great words and the sublime music, and musing on why this gift of George Friderick Handel (1685-1759) is so loved and so important to us.
Comfort Ye, my people. Your warfare is accomplished. Your iniquity is pardoned. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.
Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
These words, of course, are from Part 1 of Messiah. The librettist, Charles Jennens, took them word for word from his beloved King James Bible.
New Testament? No, Isaiah. Isaiah was a prophet who lived, scholars believe, in the eighth century B.C.
He was despised and rejected of men. Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows!
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way. And the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
All they that see Him laugh Him to scorn.
Thy rebuke hath broken His heart; He is full of heaviness. He looked for some to have pity on Him, but there was no man, neither found He any to comfort Him.
He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions of Thy people He was stricken.
Who is this man? Jesus of Nazareth?
No. Once again the text is from the Torah. Isaiah and Psalms. Hundreds of years before Christ.
Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing? Let us break their bonds asunder; and cast away their yokes from us.
He that dwelleth in Heaven shall laugh them to scorn; the Lord shall have them in derision. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.
Psalms, once again.
OK, this last is from the other end of the Bible: Revelation.
Death and Resurrection
I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.
Surely now we are in the New Testament? No. This is Job 19:25-26. For some reason I think of how a Jewish friend described a seder:
People wanted to do bad things to us. We were in great danger. Somehow, with the help of God, we survived. Let’s eat!
I admit that Comfort, Forgiveness, and Death and Resurrection are my names for the three parts of Messiah. And here we are at last, at the last of the three. Can there be such things as death and resurrection?
From now on most of the text is from Corinthians.
For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.
What does that mean? Does it matter? Why does it give me such comfort?
Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
I do not think of my self as religious, as a believer. I think of myself more as a doubter, someone more like my five-year-old grandson, who says, Oh, why?
Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For this corruptible must put on incorruption and this mortal must put on immortality.
I don’t know what the words mean, but they are great words, comforting words, words that have survived because they have meaning for humanity.
Oh death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
Straightforward enough. But then:
The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.
Don’t ask me. But I’ll think about it, as I do every year.
Mon Pays c’est l’Hiver
As we emerge from Place des Arts, it is snowing. When we came downtown it was 15° F and blowing. Now it feels like 30°. It always feels warmer when it snows. The city, my city, the one I have known since childhood, is beautiful.
I don’t know about immortality. But wait – in a way I do. Handel may not be here in the flesh, but I have just spent three hours with him, and I feel wonderful.