“O great liberality of God the Father! O great and wonderful happiness of man! It is given him to have that which he chooses and to be that which he wills,” wrote the twenty-three-year-old Italian Renaissance intellectual, Pico della Mirandola, in 1486.1 It’s toward the beginning of his oration entitled On The Dignity of Man—one of those short little works of literature you pull off your shelf every once in a while when you feel like a flub. A concentrated shot of humanism when the normal cup of coffee doesn’t quite cut it. It’s a triumphant celebration of humankind where, among other things, Mirandola imagines God saying to humankind on the occasion of their creation: “Thou art confined by no bounds; and thou wilt fix limits of nature for thyself. I have placed thee at the center of the world…thou mayest sculpt thyself into whatever shape thou dost prefer.” It’s one of those treatises only an optimistic humanist or a twenty-something who’s never thrown out their back lifting a couch up the stairs could write. Mirandola was both.
“O great liberality of God the Father! O great and wonderful happiness of man! It is given him to have that which he chooses and to be that which he wills,”Pico della Mirandola
Many years later in 1973, the agrarian and essayist Wendell Berry would offer his own assessment of humanity in a speech protesting the Vietnam war: “I do belong in the fullest sense of the word to a large group that is…known as the human race. I am aware that as a member of that group I am in the worst possible company: communists, fascists and totalitarians of all sorts, militarists and tyrants, exploiters, vandals, gluttons, ignoramuses, murderers, thieves, and liars.”2
Whether you’re willing to grant Mirandola his anthropological point, it’s probably fair to say that the shapes we take—chosen or not—are not always all that impressive.
Which brings me, logically, to Handel’s Messiah. You see, I’ve just finished a Fall of preparing Handel’s famous oratorio with a community chorus. There really is no better way to get a feel for the doctrine of Incarnation than to stand tightly packed under the heat of the stage lights, feel the clumsiness of your voice-box as it struggles to keep up, and the spit of your neighbor’s over-zealous diction, the sharp poke of elbows as you try to stand and sit at the appropriate times, and, in it all, realize that Jesus would blend right in.
“There really is no better way to get a feel for the doctrine of Incarnation than to stand tightly packed under the heat of the stage lights…and, in it all, realize that Jesus would blend right in.”
We were by no means the best. We stumbled through the melismas. Barreled through some rests. Didn’t catch all of the dynamics. Yet, for all that, the Messiah remains a wonderful piece of music. That there remains any shine left, after years of handling and mishandling, is as good of evidence as any, I suppose, of the oratorio’s superior qualities. And I doubt whether there is any finer piece that is so frequently performed by, well, amateurs. High schools. Community choirs. Within the churches I’ve frequented its common practice to invite anybody who wants to come up to the front and sing the Hallelujah chorus. Talk about giving a musical pearl to pigs. No auditions. No practice necessary.
It’s the kind of approach that made music critic George Bernard Shaw remark with a sniff and a sigh:
- To hear a thousand respectable young English persons jogging through For He shall purify the sons of Levi as if every group of (sixteenth notes) were a whole bar of (quarter notes), or repeating Let Him deliver Him if He delight in Him with the same subdued and uncovered air as in For with His stripes we are healed, or lumbering along with Hallelujah as if it were a superior sort of family coach: all this is ludicrous enough…these attempts to make the brute force of a thousand throats do what can only be done by artistic insight and skill, then I really lose patience.3
If the skill of Handel’s musical genius and Jennens’s biblical libretto represent something of Mirandola’s aspirations of what we could be, our performances of Messiah represent well Berry’s observations what we usually are.
Which is why it makes such good Christmas music.
Robert Farrar Capon remarks that the church has made many of us like “ill-taught piano students: we play our pieces, but we never really hear them because our main concern is not to make music but to avoid some flub that will get us in trouble.”4 The fact that we show none of these hesitations with the Messiah represents how well we’ve understood its message. It’s a tune and message so contagious that it lives on no matter how many times we’ve killed it.
“It’s a tune and message so contagious that it lives on no matter how many times we’ve killed it.”
In the operas of his earlier career, Handel made little or no use of the choir. In the Messiah, however, the majority of the story is propelled by the choirs and not the specialized soloists. It’s a work for the amateurs in the full sense of the word. Because, well, because—to improvise on Paul—God did not choose the musical by human standards, the educated critics, or those with perfect pitch to sing the melody of the cross, but rather the untrained, the wheezers, and those who clap on beats 1 and 3.5
So, sing the Messiah this Christmas season and don’t be afraid of singing it badly. God did not wait till we were well rehearsed in righteousness or concert ready but, rather, while we were all still a couple of (dead)beats behind, for us and for our salvation, he came down.
Mirandola is right. We are capable of a great many things (some, admittedly, can even be great), but our greatness never did reside in what we can do—intellectual, musical, or otherwise—but what we have been given. For unto us a child is born. God’s first word on creation is no different than his last—no matter how many wrong notes are in the middle: By God, it’s good. Hallelujah.
Pico della Mirandola, On the Dignity of Man, translated by Charles Glenn Wallis, Paul J.W. Miller, and Douglas Carmichael (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1965), 5. ↩
Wendell Berry, The Long-Legged House (New York: Ballantine, 1971), 67-68. ↩
George Bernard Shaw quoted in Calvin R. Stapert, Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 58. ↩
Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 149. ↩
1 Cor. 1:26-29 ↩
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Rylan, I am musically illiterate but enjoy the Hallelujah each Christmas morning at our church. I did not grow up to this music as many in our church did but learned it through hearing it on records and CDs over the years to really appreciate it. I have listened to it again the last few days as I do every Christmas season.