Handel\’s Messiah: Hope for Covid times


Handel’s Messiah.  Hope during Covid


While Christmas may look and feel a bit different this year thanks to Covid, we cannot let the pandemic totally control our responses, emotions and thoughts.

There are still things that can be done—differently, perhaps—but still adhering to your “normal” Christmas traditions. Various sites exist to show how you can have meaningful family times at Christmas, even if that means more online presence than physical.

We see a surge in awareness of the need to shop local rather than with massive online retailers or in the giant international big box outlets.

One of the great traditions in our household is our annual attendance at a performance of the great musical masterpiece, Messiah.Composed in only 24 days by George Frederick Handel, the piece has morphed from a Lenten composition as he intended, into a Christmas favourite around the world. Orchestras and choirs present the full piece to millions from Beijing to Barcelona, Dublin to Detroit. London to Lima and from Toronto to Tokyo. The resounding and inspiring Hallelujah Chorus is a Christmas staple as is the chorus “For unto us”. And Christmas for many will be diminished without that concert attendance.

I confess I love and admire this oratorio. A lot. But I had no idea for many, many years about the incredible back story behind Handel’s writing this music.

It’s a story totally suited for these pandemic times because it provides hope in the midst of despair. Handel was broke. He was facing debtors’ prison. He was surrounded by cultural and political enemies at the highest societal levels. He had physical illnesses and depression weighing him down. As an immigrant, he was now hounded by xenophobic ‘patriots’ who wanted Britain rid of the European influence that was Handel.

The story of his struggle to present his new work to audiences was exacerbated by the fact that his favourite lead singer—one of the top celebrities of her day—was just emerging from a particularly sordid and very public sex scandal. To consider having her “star” in what was essentially a religious oratorio raised hackles amongst the leading churchmen of the day.

That back story fired my imagination. I relate all of this in my book Musick for the King, a novel based upon the historical events that brought Messiah first to Dublin then to London and now the world.

The book was published earlier this year in the midst of the pandemic. It meant the normal book launch activities—launch party, book signings, book fairs—were literally out the window. More,  I, along with many others, had no idea that the pandemic would last as long and have as many ramifications some nine months in. And the end is not yet fully insight. In fact the short term outlook is depressing.

But as Handel found ways to overcome the obstacles in his path, I consider that it serves as a model for how we too can deal with restrictions, obstacles and negativity and turn them into triumph. What those triumphs are will depend upon you and your individual or family circumstances. But triumph you will!

I cannot go to Roy Thomson Hall this year for the TSO’s presentation. There isn’t one! So we will enjoy a video version instead. Hopefully, our close friends who always attend with us will be able to join us for dinner and Messiah, even if it is in our living room. (Since we do not live in a lockdown area and are allowed a small gathering that’s our plan unless restriction change again).

Of course, it won’t be the same! But as Handel showed, we can overcome even the greatest challenges and threats. It will get better. This too shall pass.

Whether it is something as simple and relatively petty as a concert, or something as impactful as not having large family get-togethers and Christmas parties with friends and colleagues. We will overcome. It will get better. This too shall pass.

It needs a humble but determined approach. Simple gifts from the heart instead of big-ticket items. A stay-at-home vacation instead of basking on the beach. (Especially if you designate one day as a ‘beach day’ and wear summer attire and flip flops inside even it its -20 outside). Traditional Christmas fare on Christmas Day followed by your favourite “foreign holiday” fare on Boxing Day. (For me, that would likely be fish and chips).

There are many great and fascinating ideas out there to keep Christmas traditions alive even in these pandemic days. All it takes is a little imagination and creativity. This is where social media excels—sharing great ideas, crafts, activities and recipes. Take advantage. This is the key to opening a door to your eventual victory over the impact of Covid.

And while you’re thinking and creating, take time to listen to the inspirational music created by Handel, even if classical music is not your normal genre.

As the saying goes: Try it. You’ll like it!

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