Handel’s Messiah Brought to You by Miss Ferguson
Finding the time to write is one thing. Finding the time to write and keep it brief is a whole other matter. Think about some of the writing assignments you received when you were a student. How less painful would it now be to read your writing if only the time had been available, or in some instances you simply had made the effort, to edit your work? I can imagine how awful some of mine must have been and marvel at the stamina of the teachers who had to read it. Perhaps I’m subconsciously seeking an editor’s redemption, but these days I have no difficulty finding excess in my writing. It’s always easy to edit, tighten up and find a way to make it more concise. It’s just a matter of taking the time. And the more time I take, the more that I can change. Blaise Pascal acknowledged the same for himself in one of his letters to the Jesuits in December 1656:
“Reverend fathers, my letters were not wont either to be so prolix, or to follow so closely on one another. Want of time must plead my excuse for both of these faults. The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter.”
During this Christmas season, I take the reminder from Saul Bellow’s composition teacher from his school days, Miss Ferguson. Bellow said that she was a tough editor and insisted on brevity. She had no tolerance for unnecessary words and bombastic writing. Her instructions stuck with Bellow long after he was an accomplished and famous author. I think the enduring impact came not only from the message, but the delivery as well. It was a school teacher’s performance that engaged the students. Miss Ferguson would dance before the class, clap her hands and in the tune and rhythm to the “Hallelujah” chorus of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, she would sing “Be specific!” Isn’t that a sight to behold?
Speaking of Handel’s Messiah, this magnum opus was originally written for Easter, not Christmas. The debut was in Dublin, Ireland in April 1742. In three separate parts, the Messiah tells the story of the birth of Jesus Christ, his death with the crucifixion and then his resurrection. As a kid, it never made sense to me that people sang the “Hallelujah” chorus, which celebrates Christ’s life and ultimate reign, not his birth, at Christmas. Just one of those holiday traditions that puzzled me. It still seems peculiar to me. Maybe oddities such as these are just the nature of holiday customs. As it goes, I had it figured out just as Handel intended. During his lifetime, Messiah was performed at Easter. It wasn’t associated with Christmas until the early eighteenth century.
Now of course, Messiah is a holiday blockbuster. Concert halls and churches throughout the country feature Handel’s famous composition this time of the year. Professional and amateurs alike participate. People like to sing along and chances are good that you can find somewhere in your town to take a part in a community choir for an evening.
All Music, the ultimate guide to recorded music, lists 4,652 album search results for “Handel: Messiah.” Connoisseurs will discuss and debate about the best versions. I have no standing to comment one way or the other. Composers have taken many liberties over the centuries. Generally, the adjustments are necessary to compensate for the musicians’ constraints. Based on the ongoing popularity of the score, it seems that most listeners don’t worry too much about the nuances and adaptations. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was an admirer of Handel and took on his own Messiah undertaking with a re-orchestration in 1789. He was careful and deferential with his changes however, because he did not want to stray far from Handel’s original score.
“Handel knows better than any of us what will make an effect. When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.”
– Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart describing his alterations to Messiah
I like that. Handel “strikes like a thunderbolt.” Just like Miss Ferguson.