In December 2002 I went to the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. for a performance of Handel’s Messiah. It was a change from our annual tradition of going to the Folger Shakespeare Library for the Folger Consort’s Christmas concert, always wonderful Medieval, Renaissance, or Baroque music. My husband and I had been going every year since we began dating in 1982, and we have gone every year since. What was different in 2002 was that I knew I could not endure the pain of the memory of the year before, the year my son Patrick announced that he wanted to join in the family tradition.
We began to include my son and daughter in the annual Christmas concert as soon as we thought they were old enough to appreciate it. Aged 14 and 15 Patrick had to be dragged along reluctantly and made no secret of his disdain. The bands Pearl Jam and Guns ’n Roses were more to his taste. A moody, restless teenager in the adjoining seat made for a less than ideal concert experience. After that we let him opt out of the annual event.
But by 2001 aged 22 Patrick was a mature adult studying to be a sound engineer. I was thrilled when he asked to come to the concert. He actually put it in terms of joining in the family tradition. It wasn’t very convenient for him as he had to work that day and take Metro downtown to meet us at a restaurant. He was running late and we had finished our meal when he called to say he was on the way from Union Station. We asked our waiter if they could prepare a meal quickly and by the time Patrick arrived at the table a steak was ready for him. Instead of the leisurely walk to the Folger we had envisioned we had to take a taxi. We made it just in time, hurrying into our seats in the balcony as the performers came out onto the stage.
I still have the program from that year. The theme was La Notte Di Natale: Christmas in Italy with guest soprano Johana Arnold, Consort founders Robert Eisenstein and Christopher Kendall, and other instrumentalists playing medieval fiddles, viols, lutes, and a theorbo. Webb Wiggins, one of our favorite performers, played the organ. The concert began with a 14th century laudario, Verbum Bonum et Suave, one of a collection of songs sung by a religious confraternity in Florence. As Arnold’s beautiful voice soared above the unfamiliar sound of the medieval instruments Patrick leaned forward in his seat and caught my eye with a look of astonished delight. Ah, I thought, he has grown up and can appreciate new things. Afterwards he told me how much he enjoyed it. I remember it as a magical evening of happiness.
The following September Patrick died suddenly of complications of mononucleosis. As Christmas approached I couldn’t bear the thought of going to the Folger without him. But my husband and daughter thought it would be good for me to get out and hear Christmas music. They got tickets to Handel’s Messiah at the Kennedy Center and dragged me along. It had been a while since I’d listened to the entire oratorio and I had forgotten the beginning. So I was unprepared for the feelings that overwhelmed me when the tenor’s voice rang out with the opening words “Comfort ye.” They seemed directed just to me. The words and music fell about me like a balm from heaven. I felt tears come, healing tears. Since September I had been frozen in a state of shock, unable to cry. When the alto sang “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” followed by the chorus “Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” the words were for me. Handel gave me the gift of grief. Never before had I listened to a piece of music with such a feeling of emotional catharsis.
Every year since I listen to the complete Messiah. I’m not a fan of the modern massed choir versions. (Sorry Mormon Tabernacle Choir.) My favorite is Trevor Pinnock’s 1988 recording with the English Concert and Choir. It was one of the first to follow historically informed performance practice on authentic instruments. I also have two DVDs, one with the Choir of Westminster Abbey and the Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Christopher Hogwood, and the other with the Choir of King’s College Cambridge and the Brandenburg Consort conducted by Stephen Cleobury. It was actually the Folger Consort that first taught me to appreciate historically informed performance in general and of Handel’s Messiah in particular. At Christmas in 1993 they performed Messiah with an English Cathedral Choir and soloists in the beautiful space of the National Building Museum. According to the program it was a recreation of the very first performance that took place in Dublin on April 13th 1742. Note the date. Messiah was not yet associated with Christmas.
Handel planned a series of charity concerts at the new Great Musick Hall on Fishamble Street in Dublin at a time when his career was in decline. English audiences were tired of the fashion for the Italian style operas that made Handel famous. His sojourn in Dublin was an opportunity to revive his career with a different kind of music, the religious oratorio. Charles Jennens wrote the libretto with text taken from the King James Bible and Handel wrote the music in a feverish three week rush of creativity in 1741. For the Dublin inaugural performance he chose his favorite singer as the mezzo-soprano soloist, Susannah Cibber.
This Christmas season PBS television aired a documentary about that first performance in Dublin, including Susannah Cibber’s tragic story. Handel’s choice was controversial because Susannah was embroiled in a scandal that was the gossip of London. Her husband Theophilus Cibber had sought a way out of his debts by pawning her jewelry and then pimping her out to one of his married friends. This shocking abusive behavior had an unintended consequence, Susannah and the friend, William Sloper, fell in love and eloped together. The couple had two children. Cibber sued, and in the legal wrangling that followed Susannah’s children, one just a baby, were taken away from her and handed over to her lover’s wife. This heartbreaking scene took place shortly before the Messiah performance.
So when Susannah Cibber sang “he was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” her own anguish came through in every note and brought the audience to tears. One story has it that at the end of the aria Dr. Patrick Delany, Chancellor of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, jumped from his seat and cried out, “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!” The triumphant performance raised enough funds to free 152 men and women from debtor’s prison. From the very first Handel’s Messiah was about suffering, grief, and redemption in this world, the world of the listener, not just in the Bible story. For everyone, no matter their religious belief, the music says “Comfort ye.”