When the Messiah comes, this blog will start making money

Posted: December 25, 2010 in music, Record reviews
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

George Frideric Handel

Since today is Christmas I’d like to have a few words with you about Christmas music. And of course when you’re rummaging around in the Christmas music cornucopia you’ll straightaway find that only one character can go the distance for you, and that would be Mr. George Frideric Handel.

Now you’re probably asking yourself, and rightly so in my view, what are my credentials for dissecting Christmas music? I am, after all, Jewish. And if you’re not asking this you’re probably asking yourself how you ended up here.

Let me reassure you and the rest of the reading public that I am extensively credentialed in this area. I was born before diversity was invented, which meant that I was forced to sing Christmas carols in the public schools. I could’ve refused, but if I had they would’ve beaten me up on the playground immediately after we were done with our Yuletide yodeling. And by “they” I am referring of course to the teachers.

As a young adult I was able to give the whole business of Christmas music a swerve, but then I married one of you pagans. Special D enjoys a healthy diet of holiday musical cheer, beginning December 1 and galloping on full-tilt over the fence until New Year’s. Being the classy little number that she is, one of her chief delights is that happy-go-lucky juggernaut known as the Messiah. So let’s have a crack at Handel’s masterwork and see what we might turn up.

S’wonderful! S’marvelous!
Handel, who was of German and British extraction, was a composer of the Starbucks Baroque Blend era. He’s probably dead today – he was a very old man when I knew him – but one thing I remember him going on about was how he invented the show-stopper. In Handel’s case, that would be the “Hallelujah” chorus. And quite smug he was about it too.

Rolling Stone ranks Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus third on their list of the “100 Super Explosive Classical Music Smash Hit Show-stopper Explosions,” behind Rossini’s “Lone Ranger Theme” and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” but ahead of Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” and Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance.”

The “Hallelujah” chorus is, of course, staggeringly popular at sing-alongs, probably because it can be learned by any moderately talented bumpkin with a spare afternoon up his sleeve. 17% of the total wordage in the “Hallelujah” chorus is “Hallelujah” and the rest is mostly kings and lords.

This mighty hymn was given a significant boost in the public consciousness in 1967, when the Red Sox won the American League pennant and their left fielder, Carl Yastrzemski, won the Triple Crown. The result you will no doubt remember was this Handel/Yastrzemski mashup:

Carl Yastrzemski! Carl Yastrzemski! Carl Yastrzemski!
The man they call Yaz. We love him!
Carl Yastrzemski! Carl Yastrzemski! Carl Yastrzemski!
What power he has!

Yaz played baseball for 23 years, which is worth a brag or two but still short of biblical prophecy: “And he shall bat for ever and ever.”

His Yoke Is Easy (like Sunday morning)
You could never accuse Handel of being subtle and so the thundering hooves of the “Hallelujah” chorus fit right in with the story he tells in the Messiah, which involves martyrs, prophets, a miraculous birth, persecution, resurrection, and other burning issues of the day. The Messiah is a ripping yarn and though it has sometimes been mistaken for Tommy with the odd bassoon moonlighting in the string section it is probably the most often performed choral work in Western music. However, I’ve encountered a problem with the Messiah that has hindered my total assimilation by all things Handelian and that would be my lifelong tendency to mishear lyrics.

For example, and this is only one example, I can produce more if it pleases the court, I only recently discovered that the line our man Handel jotted down was “Every valley shall be exalted.” I thought it was “Everybody shall be exalted.” I should’ve known better, as “everybody” knows that only Normie said “Everybody!” when he walked into the bar on Cheers and I’m willing to bet that Handel never saw this program. He was probably watching the Three Tenors.

Other aural miscues on the part of your current correspondent have led to fractures in the sacred institution of marriage, as you can glean from the following illustration:

A Jew Copes With Christmas
By Run-DMSteve
Act I, Scene 1
(The setting: A suburban living room in December. Snow is falling outside. A corgi is shedding inside. Special D is playing guess what on the stereo. Run-DMSteve is puzzled.)

Run-DMSteve:  What does cheese have to do with the birth of Christ?
Special D:  What?
Run-DMSteve:  Cheese. What did the Wise Men bring baby Jesus, a cheese wheel?
Special D:  What are you talking about?
Run-DMSteve:  They’re singing, “And we like cheese.”
Special D:  Are not.
Run-DMSteve:  Are too.
Special D:  They’re not singing “And we like cheese,” they’re singing “And we like sheep.”
Run-DMSteve:  (Pause.) They like sheep?
Special D:  They don’t LIKE sheep, they ARE LIKE sheep!
Run-DMSteve:  They don’t like sheep even a little?
Special D:  I’ve got a gun.

Ready or not, the Messiah has become an inextricable part of Christmas hereabouts. I would miss it if Special D stopped playing it. I would especially miss it if she replaced the Messiah with The Grateful Dead Go Caroling. So when I catch myself wondering if I can listen to the Messiah shake the shack yet again this season or should I find something to do on the other side of the Moon, I remember what my good friend Rudi once wrote me: “Keep singing the Messiah. Builds fiber.”

Wide world of Christmas
Next year at this time we’ll give some thought to A Charlie Brown Christmas, which was composed by the one melody-maker who can give Handel some headaches in the 100-yard dash: Vince Guaraldi. Until then, enjoy your holiday, whichever one you subscribe to, there are plenty to go around, and here’s hoping that Santa, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or Molly Ivins, Patron Saint of Secular Humanism, brought you everything you desired. Hallelujah.

  1. Accused of Lurking says:

    Three things I really like, especially when grouped together, are cheese, Carl Yastrzemski, and Men Without Hats.

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