Celebrating Christ’s Redemption and Immortality?

Quote of the Day for Saturday, December 4th, 2010:

Handel and Haydn Society Artistic Director Harry Christophers, from the Conductor’s Notes in the program for this season’s performance of Handel’s Messiah:

When listening to our performance, take note of [librettist Charles] Jennens’ amazing contribution. We need only look back to mediaeval carols where texts take us from Christ’s nativity through to his crucifixion and resurrection but Jennens takes us further – his is a unique journey which takes us from prophecies of Christ’s coming through the Nativity to Christ’s suffering, his resurrection, ascension to the Kingdom of God and finally to that amazing and jubilant epilogue celebrating Christ’s redemption and immortality.

Huh? Such palaver is the price one pays, I suppose, when the chattering class wanders into the sanctuary.

My wife and I yesterday took in, for the first time, the Handel and Haydn Society’s annual performance of the Messiah – their 156th consecutive year of performing it in Boston! H&H is a very talented ensemble, and the performance of guest alto Catherine Wyn-Rogers was memorable, yet I must confess to having had a hard time getting comfortable during much of the show.

concert-messiah-smI was haunted all night by the probably well-founded suspicion that most of the assembled – of both performers and audience – were engaging this magnificent musical setting of these sacred texts as if it were some kind of fashionably quaint fairy tale, which could just as well have been swapped out for some Italian opera with a snow-elf intoning candy-cane cantatas.

Not surprisingly, good folk complained back in Handel’s day that the theatre was no place for the presentation of such content. I understand the sentiment: I love the piety of the work, but when the presentation substitutes artistic sentimentality for its inherent piety, it is like salt that has lost its flavor.

In one of his many teachings that sounds too offensive to modern ears to be much remembered or mentioned these days, the Lord tells us: "Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you” (Mt 7:6, RSV). Again, that might sound harsh, but it’s self-evident that Christ was actually being charitable, as he, by nature, always is. Offering strange fire has never worked out well for anyone.

I tried to enjoy the concert, and I am still trying to reconcile the experience into a true satisfaction, but I can’t quite escape the sense that the aesthetic magnificence obscured a careless trampling of the Pearl of the Word. What you mean matters more than the aesthetic form of what you render, needless to say.