Between the Toronto Symphony, Tafelmusik, and Against the Grain Theatre, there will have been 12 performances – most sold out – of George Frederick Handel’s Messiah in Toronto by the end of the weekend. The popularity of this 18th-century oratorio seems undimmed as we sail into the 21st.
What keeps us coming back to it?
The most obvious answer is that Messiah is a Christmas tradition, one that has been active in Toronto for maybe 80 years, and active in the Anglo-Saxon world for much longer. But we live in an age when these Christmas observances have been fading from relevance for decades. So I’m not sure that the argument based on tradition is explanation enough for Messiah’s success. Surely it is not the overtly religious message of the oratorio celebrating the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For some time now – maybe half a century – we increasingly have become less and less a believing, Christian people. We’re not going to Messiah primarily to find God.
Messiah is, of course, an extraordinarily perfect construction of musical genius. Pouring out of Handel in three weeks or so in 1741, Messiah is a tuneful, dramatic, deeply accessible work of art. Its scenes, moods and emotional states strike clearly and forcibly into the heart of any listener, at his or her first Messiah, or 21st. When we all shout “Hallelujah” during the famous chorus, for example, we are giving voice to an emotion clean, pure and whole. The genius of Messiah is its ability to place us deeply in its dramatic world.
So it seems that the enduring power of Messiah, is not to celebrate faith, but to celebrate story. To pay homage to the deep power and pleasure of narrative arc. And the story of Messiah – the story of Christ – is a powerful narrative, moving from hopeful promise through horrific suffering and violence to the ultimate perfection of ending – the defeat of death, of horror, of pain. No wonder it is a story that has inspired such powerful sympathy over the centuries. One does not have to be Christian to respond to its essential humanity, to its understanding of rooted human need.
That’s why, in some respects, the most exciting Messiah over the past week or so may well have been that of the small, experimental musical/theatre company Against The Grain. Not that drama was not in full evidence at the Toronto Symphony’s Messiah, with its 130-voice Mendelssohn Choir, something of a remnant of an earlier, Victorian version of the classic. And Tafelmusik’s highly articulated “authentic” Messiah beautifully revived the dramatic structures of another, earlier historical time. But Against The Grain met the narrative challenges head-on by adding staging and choreography to the purely musical work. Soloists and chorus members, their parts memorized, moved through the various numbers of the oratorio, sometimes in stylized motion, sometimes in dramatic response to the story, always with intensity and drama. Such add-ons to well-established works are constantly dangerous, with the possibility of making the whole less than the sum of its parts ever-present. But the Against The Grain’s Messiah avoided those hazards. Although not perfect (the abstract dance sections and more realistic tableaux never fully meshed), the staged elements of this Messiah never got in the way, and more often, added power and meaning to the music, which, if not as well-performed as that of the Toronto Symphony or Tafelmusik versions, was performed well enough to speak eloquently.
Music has an odd double effect on its listeners. At once infinitely repeatable, and thus essentially ritualistic, it leads to the gravitational pull of tradition and regimen. That’s one of the reasons we troop to Messiah every year. But music is also inherently revolutionary, passionate, wild. It’s there to shake us out of the very conventional lethargy it can help to create. All three of this season’s Messiahs shook off the musty death rattle of the conventional with either impassioned playing or revolutionary presentation. And that’s how it should be. If we want to preserve our masterpieces, best to pickle them in the sharpest of brines. Keeps them fresh, strong, alive.