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Handel’s Messiah Brought to You by Miss Ferguson

December 19, 2013

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?

Miss Ferguson Messiah (2)

Miss Ferguson sang these instructions to her students.

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.

From → Writing

  1. My daughter goes NUTS every time she hears the Halleluiah chorus at Christmas time!


  2. Thank God for editing. I’d never write again without the time and grace to edit.
    It’s true as you point out that the teachers that I remember most were the ones who had the best presentation. My kindergarten teacher was, hands down, the best at this. She would literally remove her false teeth to show us what they looked like and she would demand that we were all quiet enough to hear a pin drop. Amazingly, 25 five year olds would want to hear the pin drop because she convinced us we could if we were only quiet enough.


    • Debra – That’s a great story about your K-teacher. Precious image. She must have been very good at her work. The false teeth part of it makes me a little queasy, however.


      • I know, but when you’re only five, the false teeth are still just one more fascination with the “adults.”
        I was a terrible student and she was one of the few teachers who I liked…because she was exotic and never yelled at us. In hindsight, I think she must have loved her job and maybe had a bit of childishness that she couldn’t let go of, so hangin’ with the kids was comfortable for her. She had to be in her late 60’s when I was in her class.
        Anyway…I really like your blog Bruce, but am thinking that your posts have not been showing up in my WP Reader. I’ll have to make it a point to visit here more often!


        • Generally, we all remember our grade school teachers. They have such a big impact on a young life. I’ve wondered how many students they can remember well, especially if they teach for a long time. Thanks for your kind words.


  3. I had the (mis)fortune to marry a soprano. We used to go to a church where every Christmas Eve the choir would do “the chorus” and invite those in the congregation that could sing it to come up and join them. Carjo would join her fellow prima donnas and just nail every high note. They’d just state at her like she was Satan.

    Best version: The Roche Sisters


    • It sounds like you are speaking with some authority on the topic. I’ll check out the Roche Sisters. As for your talented soprano, I am sure it is a score that the singers love to sing.


  4. The messiah happens to be our favorite work, holiday and otherwise. We are not religious, but there is something about the vocal achievements, polyphony and harmonies that nothing else has yet to match. A true work of fine art.

    As for making your own work tighter, we once had an editor early in our career who said, ‘write as if you had to pay $5 for every extra word you used.’ As a regular reader of SK, you know we often forget about that old gem.

    Thanks for the encouragement yesterday, BTK, xo LMA


    • Wassermusik (Water Music) is another Handel gem.

      A rate of $5 each would be be a harsh approach to keeping things tight. Bellow says that he didn’t pay enough attention to Ms. Ferguson’s instructions early in his career. Many of us are our own toughest critics. Maybe you too, LMA. SK hits it right up the middle.

      Good to see you.


  5. Hi, we’re back. Sitting in an airport lounge with time to read and comment. We wanted to mention that many songs that are now traditionally Christmas, did not start out that way. A prime example is Jingle Bells. It was written by James lord Pierpont in Medford mass to celebrate sleigh races that were populate in the mid 1800s, my day. JP Morgan is a nephew or something. You will notice there is no mention of christmas or any holiday, but we will no longer celebrate christmas without it, xo LMA. P.s. Happy New Year!


    • I see, it’s a 19th century version of adopting NASCAR’s theme music for Christmas music, sponsored by Chase or Bank of America.


  6. Ah, populate should be popular. We hate auto correct, xo


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