Saturday, December 23, 2017

Handel in Byzantium.

When I lived in North America, I made a habit of attending the annual performances of Handel's Messiah that are easy to find in the United States and Canada. My experience attending one such concert in New York in 2008 ended up earning me a mention on one of my favorite music blogs, On An Overgrown Path - a modest accomplishment, perhaps, but one of which I am proud. During my four years in Toronto, I was faithful to the annual performances of Messiah offered by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir under the direction of Ivars Taurins, and I still enjoy listening to Tafelmusik's recording of the work as a happy reminder of those concerts. Living in Washington last year, I didn't take in any of the DC-area Messiah concerts but instead waited until I was home in Massachusetts to attend one of the Handel and Haydn Society's annual performances of the oratorio at Symphony Hall in Boston. I broke a long streak of annual Messiah performances this year in Paris, where Handel's masterwork is known but less often performed; I somewhat regret this, but there is always next year...

When I heard Handel's Messiah last year in Boston, I was joined by my friend Father John Panteleimon Manoussakis, a Greek Orthodox priest and philosopher who has been mentioned here before in posts on prayer and on the Annunciation. Father Panteleimon wrote some reflections on the concert the day after the event; I asked him whether I could share some of his words in a blog post, and he readily agreed, though I did not follow through on the promised post until now. The following is adapted from what Father Panteleimon wrote, with some minor additions by me added in brackets:
Unlike Bach's and the rest of Handel's own oratorios, Messiah does not conform to an expectedly historical and historicized narrative: for sure the story of the birth, death, and resurrection of the Messiah is told, but with little or no reference to the testimonials of the New Testament at all. Handel is interested in a theological rather than a historical narrative; thus, the emphasis falls on the meaning of the events and not on their factual details. Christ’s nativity is told through the words of Isaiah, Zechariah, and Malachi; his passion, death, and resurrection through the poetry of Psalms. That allows Handel to follow the story of messianic expectation beyond Easter Sunday to an eschatological future still to come (Revelation) and yet already present (1 Corinthians). Handel's usage of those scriptural passages retrieves and preserves their usage in the liturgical context of the Eastern Church. [To provide but two examples, Handel's use of Isaiah 53:8 - "He was cut off from the land of the living..." - parallels the use of the text in the prothesis, the rite of preparation of the gifts for communion, in which it also anticipates Christ's passion, whereas the chorus that follows shortly thereafter - "Lift up your heads, o ye gates," from Psalm 24:7-10 - echos the use of the same verses in the Byzantine text of matins for Good Friday.]

By a long-standing tradition, the audience rise on their feet and remain standing during the "Hallelujah" chorus. Even though in last night's program a polite note was inserted ("To stand or not to stand?") suggesting that we should remain seated ("it is a distraction from Handel's powerful opening to the chorus..."), the entire audience rose and stood. The change in bodily posture effects a much more dramatic change: the "sacred" is revealed in the secular as the concert hall becomes transformed into a place of worship, blurring the distinctions between sacred and profane space. Standing is of course an eschatological posture, as Basil the Great explains in his homily on the eighth day. It is an acknowledgment of being in the presence of the Lord’s lordship (cf. Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Herrlichkeit).
Peace to all who read these lines. AMDG.


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