Monday, December 16, 2013

Messiah Down Through Time

With John and Monique we heard a rather exceptional performance of Handel’s Messiah yesterday at snowbound Christ Church in Grosse Pointe Farms, MI. The conductor was Scott Hanoian (a well-known musical figure here and nationally); the chorus was Christ Church’s own, 58 strong. Exceptional, also, were the program notes. They brought a bit of the history of this masterpiece and of its initial reception in Dublin, where it was first performed on April 13, 1742. Part of the notes holds this quote from the Dublin Journal appearing on the 10th and 13th:

Many Ladies and Gentlmen who are well-wishers of this Noble and Grand Charity for which this Oratorio was composed, request it as a Favour, that the ladies who honor this Performance with their Presence would be pleased to come without Hoops [hoop-framed skirts], as it will greatly increase the Charity, by making Room for more company. The Gentlmen are desired to come without their Swords.

Controversy surrounded the Oratorio initially because it was performed in regular theaters. And neither the places nor ordinary performers were thought, by some, appropriate to handle sacred texts and music. An anonymous letter-writer to a London paper, for instance: “I ask if the Playhouse is a fit Temple to perform it in, or a Company of Players fit Ministers of God’s Word.” We had a good laugh about that after the performance while dining at Grosse Pointe’s “The Original” Pancake House—until it occurred to us that much the same reaction might take place today if Hollywood got into this particular act.

In 1785, Abigail Adams was visiting London and attended a performance of the Messiah. She was quite as entranced as we were; she spent a guinea on the ticket; she thought that expensive but well worth it. So how much did she spend? Various sources on the Internet have done their best to inform me. A credible answer, translating Year1800 guineas into our current dollars puts a guinea at around $60. One thing certainly has changed. Prices have dropped. We only spent $25 per ticket.

The program notes also brought us the actual text of the Messiah. It turns out to be quite an amazing collation of biblical quotations from the Old and the New Testaments assembled for a particular context. This was the first time that we could listen while also clearly grasping what the voices actually said—and it gave this evening an extra dimension we’d never experienced before.

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