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Christmas, the "Messiah" and the Small Town
by Joseph Sittler

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Prepared for the Christmas season, the chancel of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in the small southern Ohio town where I lived from my tenth year until I entered college endures in my memory. The building itself was a replica of a Bavarian parish church. The nave was long, high, solemn; the altar was of white-and-gold paneled wood. In the center niche of the Gothic reredos was a life-size reproduction in white wood of the Thorwaldsen Christ, and to right and left in other niches were the four evangelists.

It was the custom at Christmastime to place against this background two 30 foot Christmas trees. The trees were lighted not by incandescent bulbs such are used in these degenerate days but by dozens of six-inch twisted, real wax candles which not only provided an enchanting light but also gave off a fragrance no longer experienceable except where fire laws permit and tradition demands the fine old way to light a Christmas tree. During the singing of the first hymn at vespers on the Third Sunday of Advent the candles were lighted by highly favored men who on more ordinary days were, respectively, the operator of the gutter-and-downspout shop and the grocery clerk. On this occasion, however, they seemed to all the children to transcend such pedestrian roles in life, and when they lighted the candles with tapers attached to long poles, they seemed transfigured mortals.

It was in such a setting that I first heard the Messiah. The singing of this oratorio was an event in the church year matched in excitement by only one other — the annual church picnic in June at the county fairgrounds. That summer occasion is memorable to me not only because of the three-inch-deep apple pie and the fat ladies’ race sponsored by the Frauenverein but also because, by virtue of our prestige as sons of the pastor, my brothers and I were permitted to finish off the ice cream. What delights this involved it is difficult to understand in these Borden and Sealtest days unless I go into some detail here. In those uncorrupted and now vanished times ice cream had cream in it! It came, for picnic use, in huge green wooden tubs about four feet deep, and around the ten-gallon steel containers in the center was packed the salted ice. The distance to the bottom of the containers was so far beyond the reach of the busy (usually female) dispensers that tantalizing amounts of ice cream could be salvaged by enterprising youngsters. Inspired by resoluteness, unabashed by damage to my Sunday shirt and by grace of my father’s office, I spent considerable time up-ended over those tubs.

But I digress. The annual rendition of the Messiah on the Sunday evening preceding Christmas Day was the celebrative peak of the year. The choir was directed by a dour, cranky old member of the parish, a physician by vocation. Of his merits as a physician I know very little, but I am quite sure that his genuine passion was reserved for the Messiah and that the practice of medicine was a half-abstracted way of making a living until Christmas and the Messiah came around. To conduct the Messiah at St. Peter’s at Christmas was, I am sure, his absolute moment — not on musical but dramatic grounds. This mordant judgment is based on the fact that another major musical event came on the Friday of Holy Week, at which time the doctor always chose one of those treacly, mass-produced products of the choir-music factories that turn out such melodious junk by the yard. He seemed not to know the difference between the majesty of Handel and the pomposity of lesser composers. His operating philosophy seemed to be: “You lay it down; I’ll beat it out.”

It is astounding that the townspeople didn’t seem to know the difference, either. Some of the noblest music in Christian history — the great chorales, at least one of them every Sunday — was a weekly diet in that parish. But in the early years of this century, public school music, radio, the phonograph, and the availability of musical education for the masses were unknown. Though our congregation may have recognized that “Herzliebster Jesu” and “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” were great music, they also accepted without murmur the musical yard goods of the commercial firms. But the Messiah at Christmas was a kind of emotional catharsis. From the beginning of Advent on, the tension mounted; common folk were, in Hopkins’s words, “gathered to a greatness.”

The bass in the choir was Jake, who ran the big grocery store downtown. In that store was a bakery where real bread was baked daily. Inasmuch as real bread is no longer available in the United States, I must tell you what it was like. It was made of flour; it was not enriched, not irradiated, not proposed as medicine for “strong, healthy bodies. It was simply bread — of such elemental magnificence that the remembrance of it almost cracks me up. The great brick ovens were always working by six o’clock in the morning, and as we walked by on our way to school two hours later, the whole street was freshly, breadly odorous.

Jake was a big man. At nine o’clock, after the bread had been taken from the ovens, he could usually be seen walking down Main Street in his great white apron, his huge arms floured to the elbow, on his way to Happy Mock’s saloon for a mug of beer. Happy, incidentally, was also a communicant of St. Peter’s; he showed up regularly on Ash Wednesday and on Easter. When my father was leaving the parish to assume another task, Happy made it a point to tell him that he would miss his sermons. Father reminded Happy that he had been missing them for a number of years!

Anyhow, Jake was the bass. What he lacked in finesse and precision, he made up in power and enthusiasm. I have heard “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” sung better, but I have never heard the question put more forcibly. Jake sang it as if he really wanted to know! When he inquired, “And why do the people imagine a vain thing?” the little flames on the Christmas trees trembled. When he dropped off to that spine-tingling note at the end of the aria, we small boys, amazed at the performance, poked each other with delight.

The organist’s name was Ethel. She was the fat, almost square, perpetually jolly wife of the local undertaker. He looked like Horse Hines in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, but Ethel was full of the goodness of the Lord: “All her ways dropped fatness.” She was an indifferent organist but an imperturbable one. The difficulties of the score were things to be aimed at in a general sort of way; a few dropped notes here and there were merely silly details, not worthy to be remembered in the light of the total impression. There was on that old tracker-action organ — a really fine instrument of pre-electropneumatic days — a four-foot flute stop of such liquid quality that I can hear it still. Many years later, when I was concerning myself with organ specifications, I was consulted by the congregation; in this connection, I recall that when Walter Holtkamp, a distinguished organ builder, heard that flute he made the now celebrated remark: “The flute, properly played, will leave not a dry seat in the house.”

The flute stop was commonly used on the great annual occasion to accompany the aria “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.” The line of that phrase in Handel’s notation was utterly melting; when our George sang it, strong men paled. George was an incompetent, lackluster, weak, indecisive, harmless young man who clerked in the post office. He moved like a wraith through the town, never uttering a word. It was old Doc, I suppose, who found out — God knows how — that George had a tenor voice that was pellucid, sweet and of angelic purity. And once a year, George sang in the Messiah.

In the microcosm of our small town was epitomized the effect this music of Handel’s has had on generations all over western Europe and North America. I shall try to account for that impact in a moment, but now to describe it. The week before the performance the members of the choir became quiet, almost morose. Only with difficulty were their minds kept on their work. During these lapses, families and fellow workers would be indulgent: “She’s singing in the Messiah on Sunday, you know.” The participants would look at themselves in the mirror to detect any evidence of illness, open wide their mouths to catch signs of a bad throat. They would wear heavy mufflers to protect their voices, lie down for a spell every afternoon to ensure full power and efficiency on Sunday. I assure you I do not exaggerate. They would nod to one another on the street with enigmatic smiles. They shared a secret: whoever was not in the choir was for that week a lesser being.

I could go on to tell of certain other persons in the choir. In fact, I think I will. I remember particularly the local lumber dealer’s daughter, who sang the alto aria “He was despised and rejected of men.” She had black hair, great moist eyes and a voice of dark velvet. She was so beautiful that she almost wrecked my youth. I still recall the erotic imaginings that she set off in my adolescent soul and the cliffs over which she dangled weakly until I arrived to save her; smothering her words of thanks, I would drift off into unconsciousness. I think I owe my enduring love for lyric poetry to this beauteous girl. She was a “magic casement opening on the foam.” Anyhow, she sang in the choir.

How can one account for the popularity of this music? I think the answer is quite simple. Text, score, the magic of the season all converge in a single event with absolute good fortune. In this regard the Messiah is like Oklahoma! It is just right. It’s what Variety calls a “whiz-bang.” You can’t lose. The details of this astounding harmony of sure-fire elements can be separated and looked at.

First, the libretto. It is not of Handel’s day; it was assembled from biblical texts by Charles Jennens and handed over to Handel all complete. That the man who didn’t hesitate to revise Shakespeare should confidently string biblical texts together in order to suggest the mighty structural members of the entire biblical drama should come as a surprise to no one.

What is surprising is the sheer success of it! For the texts are representative, the episodes are crucial. The libretto of the masses is Heilsgeschichte for the humble. The texts, furthermore, have a rhetorical quality that pleads for singing. From prophecy to eschatology to the epilogue in heaven where ranks of angels sing “Blessing and honor and glory and power” it is an impeccable tour de force. If, for instance, one examines the few texts chosen for the ministry, life, work, and sayings of Jesus, one is astounded at the felicity and propriety of the choices. The King, the Servant, the Healer, the Consoler of human misery, the Shepherd, the Lamb of God, the Man of Sorrows - they are all there, and there in the most memorable text for each category or function.

Second, the music. Simplicity and harmonic purity in the line, muscular economy sufficient to achieve an effect whose only aesthetic category is the sublime. In this music is the perfect embodiment of English religious sentiment. That in itself is a complex thing which I shall not try to describe. But we feel this particular Christmas sentiment in the language of the English Bible and the prayer book and in the English hymns. It is rich without being cloying, sweet without superfluity, moving without loss of majesty, heavy with legitimate sentiment but always stopping a safe distance this side of sentimentality.

This achievement is the more amazing when one recalls that Handel was German, that English was not his native tongue and that the lineage of his melodies is Italian. The English oratorio is a development of the Italian opera; its forebears are secular, whereas the German oratorio is a development of the chorale. The English work does not in the same way spring out of folk sources. The Messiah keeps right on rocking through the decades because it represents a happy marriage of four elements: the power of music, a simple and solid theological structure, Italian grace and style, and English religious sentiments.

After reading all this, one might suppose that I am a true believer, a Messiah patriot. I am not. I never go to hear it anymore. Except for the memories clustered about my early experience it would not have great significance for me musically or religiously.

The Messiah music does not, like the Passions, the cantatas, and the B Minor Mass of J.S. Bach, really assault my mind with continuing power. It does not, as Bach continues to do, bring under a fierce, relentless gaze all my theological conceptions and my actual performance in life. For instance, I can know a great deal about the Christian faith in historical and theological terms, but Bach’s O Mensch bewein dein Sunde gross (O Man Thy Great Sin Bewail) stands over against me as a deep accusation, putting under absolute moral question my entire career and existence.

J.S. Bach musically sets forth the Word, and it troubles and resonates with judgments that transcend even the craftsmanship and virtuosity of the mediocre: Handel wrote to please humanity — with an opulent embodiment of human religious feeling. Each composer brought off his intention with incomparable force.

Copyright 1984 CHRISTIAN CENTURY. Reproduced by permission; originally published in the December 22, 1965, issue; reprinted in the December 16, 1981, issue of the CHRISTIAN CENTURY. Subscriptions: $49/year from P.O. Box 378, Mt. Morris, IL 61054. 1-800-208-4097.




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