A Few Thoughts on Messiah and Maestro Handel

Monday Musings for Monday December 10, 2012

Volume II. 40/92


A Few Thoughts on Messiah and Maestro Handel

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

NC Symphony and NC Master Chorale recently performed Messiah with authority, power, transcendence and luminosity that the piece deserves.  Here are a few thoughts about Messiah and our beloved octogenarian NCS:

Messiah is special in many ways:

1)     Handel (George Frideric) and Bach (Johann Sebastian) were born in Germany the same year, 1685.  Handel in Halle, and Bach in Eisenach, about fifty miles apart.  They followed different paths, different careers, and different life styles.  Probably never met.  Handel spent a lot of his professional life in England and wrote music for George II, former Elector of Hanover of Germany.  Handel was working for the Elector as a Kapellmeister.  He left Germany for Italy to further his musical education without the Elector’s permission. The Elector, who later became George II, King of England, was not very pleased.  Handel approached George II in London and apologized for abandoning his post.   Handel was forgiven by the king who commissioned the Maestro for many pieces of music, among them The Water Music. George II became very fond of Handel’s music.  It was Handel who composed music for the King’s coronation in 1727.  Obviously by 1727, Handel was well forgiven by his majesty.

2)    It is variously reported that Messiah was written by Handel in fewer than 30 days.  A true miracle.  His knowledge of the Bible was astounding.  His creative genius of musical composition was unparalleled.  Handel was a big man.  He did not mince words.  If he did not like a minion’s behavior, he would let his displeasure be known by beating up the irritant. Wonder if King George II was intimidated by Handel’s heft and bulldog demeanor?

3)    Messiah opened 270 years ago, in 1742.  King George II was in the audience at the performance premiere.  He became so excited by the majesty of the music that he rose during the Alleluia chorus.  Of course everyone else rose.  When the king rises no one stays seated!  The music touched him very deeply.  And that is why, to this day, audiences throughout the world follow what has become the cultural tradition and accepted decorum. We all rise when Alleluia chorus is sung.  Since 1742, Messiah has played continuously without cessation, in war, in peace, in famine and in abundance.  It has been played every year for the past 270 years.

4)    The only other musical lasting and playing continuously is Ibn Khaldoun’s Talavat of Qur’an passages.  Ibn Khaldoun was born in Tunis in 1332.  He was a brilliant Muslim economist, philosopher, theologian, polymath and music lover.  He wanted to bring music back to Islam,  a religion that had banned music.  Khaldoun wrote to the reigning Caliph suggesting and arguing that since it is acceptable to sing the passages of the Holy Quran, by fatwa, the Caliph should allow singing and music in Islamic nations.  The Caliph agreed.  Khaldoun started an annual singing competition for Islamic countries which continues to this day.  It is very much like our Oscars or the Emmys.  All Islamic nations send their best singers to participate in Talavat competition.  I believe Nigeria holds the current championship.  Talavat started in 1355 when Khaldoun was 23 years old. In the history of music, there are no other compositions known to have continuously played.

As an aside: Ibn Khaldoun forwarded the concept of trickledown economics.  One might recall that in 1981, Robert Mundell, Chairman of the late President Reagan’s Board of Economic Advisers, introduced trickledown economics.  He had studied Ibn Khaldoun.  In his writings, Mundell has made numerous references to the 14th century Arab economist.  A Columbia University professor of economics, Mundell conceived and created the Euro.  He is now working on a currency for the Middle East and the Arab world. Any suggestion what it might be called?  Mundell won 1999 Nobel Prize in economics.

Symphony no. 7 by Dmitri Shostakovich, performed by NC Symphony

In its 80th year, the NC Symphony has reached a degree of maturity, predictable excellence, and incredible versatility that is gratifying and admirable.  Recently, the symphony  played back to back the relatively short Mozart ‘s Symphony no 25 in G minor followed by the 75 minute technically demanding and colossal Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 7.  The 104 piece symphony with 26 violins, nine violas, nine cellos, six basses, 13 French Horns, two harps and a complement of piccolos, flutes, oboes, with 10 additional trombones and trumpets housed in the chorale loft of the concert hall, along with an impressive array of percussive instruments, provided a memorable evening.  The music depicted storm of war, softness and tranquility of peace, conflict, and human indignity.  The composition brought to mind synaesthetically, Picasso’s painting the famed Guernica and the tumultuous narrative of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  Guest conductor Carlos Kalmar’s mastery of the music brought Maazelian exactitude and  excellence which allowed for the majesty of the talent of the NCS’s musicians to be fully expressed.

We have professional sports such as football and basketball that get full weekly coverage in the local media.  I wish we would offer equal recognition to our NCS team.

*The writer is a Distinguished Life Fellow American Psychiatric Association, Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill.  He is the Founding Editor and Editor in chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012)

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