09 November 2007

Stellar moments

The Mister bought a book last month by Stephan Zweig called, in Catalan, Moments estel.lars de la humanitat (Stellar Moments of Humanity; I'm not sure what the title is in the original German). I also can't figure out when it was first published. The nineteen-thirties? Forties? We've been reading it in pieces, sometimes aloud to one another, and then each on our own.

The chapters detail, as the title suggests, great moments of history. It pretty much fits into the "great men" tradition of history (and it is strictly all about men), except Zweig takes pains to point out that sometimes the turning points of history revolve on the actions of scoundrels, cowards, or unknowns.

I turned first to the race to the South Pole by Captain Scott, because I always love arctic exploration stories. Other chapters I rather enjoyed include the laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable by Cyrus Field and the "discovery" of the Pacific by Vasco Núñez de Balboa.

Right now I'm reading the chapter about Handel's composition of the Messiah. I don't know why I ended up saving this one for last, but the timing seems right. I've been engrossed in the story of a man who, just recovered from a paralyzing stroke, besieged by creditors, without any desire to compose, suddenly is sent a libretto (by a librettist he had been known to belittle--hee hee I always wanted to use those two words in one phrase!) and finds himself gripped by a manic episode of composing that lasts, day and night, for twenty-four days.

When he emerges from his almost visionary state and finally sleeps and eats heartily, he insists that the music has come not from him, but from divine inspiration. He donates the concert revenue to hospitals and prisons, stating that the work is for the sick and the imprisoned, because he himself once was sick, and was cured, once was a prisoner and has been freed.

Then, last night, I went to choir. We're performing the Messiah this semester, and as much as I love this music, as much as singing it is always thrilling to the bone, last night the story of its composition, the text, and the music all fell together and just about overwhelmed me. I started to sing with my eyes closed, so familiar it is, and became utterly absorbed in the exquisite sound.

I've sung the Messiah in Oxford's Sheldonian theater, one of the places Handel himself conducted it, with a professional orchestra. I've sung it with feeble high-school strings trying heroically to keep up with the tempo. I've sung it at parties, in church, in countless rehearsals, school gymnasiums. I've sung solos from it for auditions and in performance. I still remember the first time I heard the whole thing live, and listen to it on the radio every Easter and Christmas. But last night it was new to me all over again.

The story of redemption in song, the incredible word-painting, those breathtaking musical surprises. In that moment it was clear how art can be so much greater than itself, that it is much more than the production of a meager human being. I think this is emphasized even more in choral and symphonic works, because their magic is that the music becomes so much more than a sum of the parts, a true synergy of human and divine.

So Zweig didn't have it quite right; the stellar moment isn't so much the composition of the work as the singing of it, time and time again, with thousands and thousands of voices. The newness of a familiar work in every performance, how the inbreathing of notes on the page and plain old air becomes the outbreathing of, well, music.

And that is what I am thankful for today.

1 comment:

Charlotte said...

Lovely post, Robin. I'm not musical, but I love listening to choral music. I imagine it must be joyful to participate, especially if you love a piece of music so much.