Sunday, November 13, 2011

Handel's Messiah makes me cry

I have had a few discussions with my best friend lately re: music, non-popular.

My friend is a violist and I grew up singing in choirs. When we were in college together she played in the orchestra and I sang in the choir. In winter terms the orchestra and the choir tended to present a work together (like Brahms Requiem.)

We are both verbals--she's a poet and I'm...well I'm me. I write essays about myself and post them on the inter-webs and I'm the one the B School students want editing our group paper.

Last week we were discussing choral music and she was lamenting that some of it is, in fact, written in English--because that distracts her from the music. I was saddened by this. It may be because I've been in choirs, or it may be because I'm twitchy, but I get bored by instrumental music with no vocals.

When presented with lyrics in a foreign language (which is most of the time--there were few good English composers) I try to map them on to the English translation. I did this when I was in choir and singing a work and I do it when I'm sitting in the audience listening to the work. I do this because I care about lyrics and what they mean (also, I suspect because it's a puzzle.)

Apparently, not every one does this. I learned this when explaining to my friend how I try to map meaning on to foreign language texts--because the lyrics are as important as the music and so I feel that it's important to understand them. I was surprised to find that she did not think as I did--about as surprised as she was a few weeks ago when she discovered that I can't read music.

"Really?" she asked. "What do you think when you see this?" She asked after googling the music to a Vivaldi piece. I explained that the nice little black dots give me some indication of whether or not the next note was higher or lower than the previous one and let me know what the duration was likely to be, but I really learned music by listening to those around me.

Last night she stopped by my place. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, I had put on Handel's Messiah. When she arrived I offered to turn it of because it was Christmas music and she--like me--has worked for a long time in retail and therefore she has developed an antipathy to Christmas Music.

She said however that I need not turn it off because it was "good classical music" although I think he technically is Baroque. "It's not like the Christmas music you hear in the mall." she said, which reminded me of the video I've embedded--which I showed her (technically, no--you don't hear Handel in the mall. But you hear Handel in *this* mall.)

I asked her if the lyrics annoyed her and she said that she couldn't understand them--so they didn't bother her. This was strange to me--the lyrics to the Messiah are in English and since I first heard it sung and learned that in fact the lyric in "For Unto Us a Child is Born" was not "and his name shall be call-ed Wonderful! Bouncible*!" I've been familiar with the lyrics of the Messiah.

We watched the flash mob, remarked on which of the singers reminded us of friends of ours and speculated as to how they might have practiced for this and I didn't cry at all.

Handel's Messiah makes me cry. To a certain extent--good, live classical/baroque music will always have the potential to do so, but the Messiah is a shooin. I have often wondered why this is so. One year at Christmastime I went with my mom to hear my dad's church choir sing the Messiah. A week or so earlier a friend of mine and a member of the choir had killed himself. The pastor mentioned him and dedicated the concert to him. I knew that when the music stared I was going to start leaking at the eyes. I hoped my mom would just assume that I was crying about my friend--because otherwise it's awfully hard to explain.

When presented with something beautiful I sob like I'm heartbroken. I used to think this was so because I was living a life with no beauty in it. Lately I've begun to wonder if maybe the reason that the Messiah makes me cry is because I can understand the lyrics and tie them to the beautiful music with no effort.

I'm not religious, but I can see the beauty and the rightness of the lyrics and how they fit to the music.

Even as I write this it seems an unlikely hypothesis. More likely I cry because the work of Handel is beautiful and the Messiah is emotionally charged--being Christmas music.

Elaboration on that theme is work for another night.

*Wonderful Counselor

1 comment:

oboediva said...

Most of my historical performance colleagues would cringe at hearing me say this but here goes: I've played Messiah over 250 times, probably closer to 300 -- but I still love it and can't wait to play it again each season. Now THAT'S the ne plus ultra in dorkitude for a professional musician!