Friday, November 30, 2012

Getting a Handle on Handel

I play second fiddle in a small community symphony. I enjoy music, and even if I don't play well myself, the music we make as a group is a lot of fun. This time of year (around Christmas) we play in at least two performances: one for Christmas, and then there's a long running (over twenty years, I think) tradition of putting on a Messiah sing-along.

I'm also an atheist. How should I respond to the accusation that I betray atheists in some fashion by participating in a transparently religious celebration?

I don't think I have a good answer. I enjoy the music. David Blackbird, an amazingly talented and thoughtful man of my acquaintance, pointed out at one time, "when you sing about Frosty the Snowman, are you telling everyone you believe in magical top hats? No? So why should singing about Jesus suggest that you believe in a magical carpenter's son?"

That was good enough to make me feel better about singing "Silent Night" and playing my arm sore at Christmas concerts. But it really isn't a convincing argument that a Christmas concert put on by a community group that receives tax monies from a city government is not violating the First Amendment's prohibition of "respecting an establishment of religion."

Maybe Fox' Bill O'Reilly came to my rescue the other day. In an interview with American Atheists' Dave Silverman O'Reilly tried to avoid the accusation that when a government entity supports Christmas it is legitimizing a religious holiday by suggesting that Christianity is not a religion. It's a worldview, or a philosophy, according to O'Reilly. The Catholic Church is a religion. Baptists are a religion. But Christianity is not a religion.

However, I'm sorry to say that it is obvious to everyone that Bill O'Reilly was being disingenuous (again). There may be definitions for worldview or philosophy that would allow us to include Christianity, but those don't change the fact that Christianity is also a religion, and that it is what the Constitution's First Amendment refers to when it prohibits making laws "respecting an establishment of religion, or the free exercise thereof."

After all, if Christianity were not a religion, then it wouldn't be unconstitutional to make a law prohibiting the practice of Christianity. "In the interest of preventing the formation of groups holding extremist views, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are banned. Persons caught practicing or promoting these worldviews or philosophies, or found to give material aid to anyone practicing or promoting these worldviews, will be prosecuted under the Patriot Act's penalties for acts relating to terrorism." For an atheist like me it sounds like a good idea, but I bet Bill O'Reilly wouldn't go for it.

Not the Christianity part, anyway.

So I'm still left with a quandary. I suppose a city government can put up lights and seasonal decorations, arguing that they promote shopping and a civic spirit, which is good for the businesses that pay taxes in the city. They might even get away with supporting a community orchestra that plays Christmas tunes in public venues, like the community senior center, or the city library's auditorium. I think it even is OK when the performances are in churches and seminaries as long as the public is admitted regardless of religious affiliation.

When the same question is asked about the Messiah it gets a little more ticklish. Most Christmas carols are familiar enough tunes that they are arguably folk songs. The Messiah, however, is not like that. The Messiah was written in 1741, when Handel was at something of a low point in his career. He had been reasonably successful writing fairly conventional music, and he really wanted to try his hand at something new. But after months of having nothing to show for his time his funds were running low and he had to produce something to make the cash registers ring again. So when his friend and longtime collaborator Jennens approached him with a libretto he had written as an explicit response to deists (yes, the same kinds of deists that are responsible for our Constitution's disestablishmentarianism), Handel tossed together a few dozen bits of baroque elevator music, which were then performed for the first time around Easter 1742 in Dublin.

OK, describing the pieces as baroque elevator music sounds a bit cavalier, but, seriously, critical acclaim for originality or compositional structure is not something you'll be hearing about the Messiah, no matter how much fun it is to listen to, even if you consider Handel's original arrangement (which most performances, including ours, are not). Plus, from its origin the piece is effectively a refutation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. That makes it special in this context.

Finally, there is a fair amount of effort to select pieces from the work that suit the theological understanding of the participants, rather than the poetic value of the lyrics or the compositional integrity of the music. Some sections that make theological references that are unfamiliar to American Protestants are not even included in typical American publications of the work, or are set aside into an appendix. The work is clearly far more religious in nature than, say, "Rudolf the Rednosed Reindeer" or even "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem."

So I have no very good answer. I probably won't be playing this year because I've injured my arm. Last year, however, I participated, and I will be there next year, too, if they'll let me. The music, however hackneyed and unoriginal it may be to a musicologist, is just too much fun to give it a pass.