In this season of goodwill and compassion, spare a moment for the forgotten man of Christmas.
His name is Charles Jennens. You probably have never heard of him, but every Christmas, you probably listen to, if not sing, at least some of the words he crafted together.
Jennens is the man who assembled the texts for Handel's Messiah. The very fact that we call it Handel's Messiah demonstrates exactly how much we value Jennens's contribution to the oratorio. Yet a compelling case can be made that it is Jennens's compilation of biblical texts, most from the Old Testament, that is as responsible for Messiah's enduring power as Handel's music. A radical suggestion.
And I'd go even further, and say that it is the differing relationship to Jennens's texts that truly distinguishes the three Messiahs we heard this season in Toronto – from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Soundstreams's Electric Messiah.
The key to Messiah's popularity, in an age when we're afraid to wish people "Merry Christmas" but are happy to shout "Hallelujah, King of Kings and Lord of Lords" in a dozen sold-out Messiah performances every December, is that Messiah is not religious art, the way the Bach Passions are religious art. Messiah is religious propaganda, or at least it was for Jennens. He carefully assembled his biblical texts for Messiah to prove that Jesus's life had been prophesied in the Old Testament (that's why most of the texts are from that older volume) and thus it was not just convention or tradition that made Christianity vital – Christianity was an eternal truth.
So there was tremendous urgency for Jennens in the texts he chose for this oratorio, as well as a deep sense of battle and militancy and martial glory in the work. Hardly anyone pays attention to the texts for Messiah any more, but, if you do, you'll see how bloodthirsty they are. God says he will "shake the heavens and the Earth;" "Who shall abide the day of his coming … for he is like a refiner's fire, and he shall purify the sons of Levi." "Why do the nations so furiously rage together … He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron."
I mentioned that hardly anyone pays attention to the texts of Messiah, but that's not entirely true. Ivars Taurins does. Taurins, who has conducted Tafelmusik's Messiah for years, understands every nuance in the texts (as did Handel, who miraculously composed his score to Jennens's texts in just a few weeks).
Tafelmusik's Messiah this year was a masterpiece of urgency and fire, tension and drama. In Taurins's hands, this is no holiday classic trotted out to please traditionalists and make some money for his organization. It is an experience, from beginning to end, of narrative and emotion, tension and release, which tells a human story as much as a Christian story – Messiah's true staying power.
And Taurins was aided this year with an extraordinary group of soloists. Krisztina Szabo was a most amazing alto. You could feel the heat rise on the back of your neck when she conjured up that "refiner's fire." Her "He was despised" was simple, yet deeply affecting, presenting pictures of grief, horror, deep sadness and calm resignation one after the other, as only a true artist can.
Tyler Duncan's baritone was almost in the same league. We heard the Earth shaking when he sang it, heard the darkness creeping into the hall when he conjured it up, and heard the trumpet sounding in his voice. Colin Balzer provided an effective contrast with his fine tenor, and soprano Amanda Forsythe provided supreme beauty and serenity when she sang, providing the traditional emotional colour of the Virgin Mary to the evening.
Jennens was a less urgent presence in the Toronto Symphony's Messiah, under the direction of Nicholas McGegan, although, paradoxically, it was the glory and militancy of Jennens's texts that pushed Victorian England to substitute itself for the Kingdom of God, and perform Messiah with 500-piece orchestras and 5,000-voice choirs. The 130 voices of Toronto's Mendelssohn Choir, a staple of the TSO version for decades, is a holdover of that Victorian gargantuanism, and although McGegan tried mightily to provide subtlety and suppleness to his Messiah, and succeeded in many places, the whole enterprise felt a bit too too much like an opulent Christmas dinner – with too much food served to too many contented guests. Everything was just a bit too rich, too rounded off, too predictable.
On the other hand, Soundstreams's Electric Messiah, in its second incarnation, at the Drake Hotel, was neither urgent nor self-contented, but a postmodern take on this child of the 18th century, imaginatively reconceiving the work to make it a 21st-century experience. It was joyous and ragged, with turntablists and dancers, cellphones playing "For Unto Us a Child Is Born" from YouTube videos, a wonderful "How Beautiful Are the Feet" from soprano Carla Huhtanen, all of it altogether charming.
All music is contemporary music. It is performed in the here and now; it can't escape a value system rooted in the present. Messiah has always been a prime example. We may think we're merely recreating a work whose essence lies centuries removed from our own when we perform it, but that isn't true. The value of classic works of art is that they wiggle out of their original circumstances and live in an eternal present.
The TSO's Messiah continues until Dec. 23 (tso.ca); Tafelmusik's Messiah has ended its 2016 run, as has Soundstreams's.