Even before the first note sounded, the Ertegun Scholars’ trip to hear the Oxford Bach Choir and the London Mozart Players’ performance of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah was an experience. Seated in the uppermost balcony of the Sheldonian Theatre, our heads seemed to scrape the painted ceiling, and we could look out over an auditorium thronged with concertgoers of all ages. There is a particular aptness to hearing Handel in this space: the composer himself premiered another of his oratorios, Athalia, at the Sheldonian in 1733. Though the Messiah was envisioned as a piece to reflect on the Easter season, the piece has become a beloved Christmas staple.
The most fervent devotee of Baroque music will admit that listening to the entire Messiah is a formidable undertaking. The oratorio is divided into two rather lopsided halves, the first roughly twice as long as the second. The most familiar and best loved portions—the soprano aria “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth,” the remarkable trumpet solo, and, of course, the magnificent Hallelujah Chorus—come after the intermission. Not that the first two parts are unpleasant. One delightful moment in the libretto comes when the chorus intones “All we like sheep” (to the amusement of all). I was particularly taken with a passage in Part II in which the tenor and the chorus engage in a dialogue, with the chorus taking on the role of the crowds mocking Jesus.
In the end, however, the Messiah is famous for the show-stopping conclusion to Part III, the Hallelujah Chorus. Tradition dictates that the audience stand for the duration of the Chorus—according to legend, when King George II first heard the Messiah, he was so moved by the Chorus that he rose to his feet. Royal protocol dictated that those around him follow suit, and so began the custom. As those first familiar notes filled the hall, we all looked from one to another, silently asking, “Is this it?” For a moment or two, no one moved, until, little by little, the Sheldonian Theatre got to its feet.
When I visited Paris many years ago, friends warned me that the Mona Lisa would be a disappointment. So utterly familiar, so endlessly repeated, so underwhelming in real life. To be sure, there is little that surprises—we know that face almost better than we know our own. And yet, personally speaking, I found something extraordinary in coming face to face, so to speak, with the lady herself.
As we all stood together, those familiar words erupting from the chorus, I found myself thinking about the Mona Lisa. About the mysterious alchemy of presence, the experience of art in communion with other human beings. I have heard the Hallelujah Chorus many times—in movies, in advertisements, in recordings—but there was something unique in hearing it together. We heard it.
There, it seems to me, is the triumph of the Messiah. The musical re-enactment of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the oratorio dramatizes the story of the salvation of all humanity. In the sensory compassion (lit., “feeling-together”) that is the Hallelujah, we glimpse something of that unity, a harmony among people that demands no creed or affiliation, only the fellow-feeling of listening.