“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God..."—George Frideric Handel, “Accompagnato For Tenor,” Messiah
When you get right down to it, this is what this holiday season is all about, isn’t it? Handel first created music to go with the quote above from Isaiah 40:1-3, at a Dublin performance all the way back in 1742. Audiences have been profoundly moved by Messiah since then.
Jonathan Kandell’s article on Messiah in the new issue of Smithsonian Magazine is a fun retrospective on one of the best-loved pieces of sacred music. Inevitably, with this being a fallen world, the interpreters of this soaring music have been most imperfect people.
One of these sinners, the contralto at that original 1742 performance, Susannah Cibber, had landed in the news for her part in a scandalous love triangle. More than a few people in the audience then wanted to see what this scarlet woman would do.
Evidently, she was a roaring success—or, in the words of Dr. Patrick Delany, chancellor of St. Patrick’s Cathedral: “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”
Though Handel got along nicely with the Ms. Cibber (a fine actress as well as singer), his relationship with another songstress had its rough patches—especially when she ignored his multiple instructions on how to sing his lines. “I know well that you are a real she-devil, but I will have you know that I am Beelzebub!" the heavyset composer exclaimed as he grabbed Francesca Cuzzoni, reproving her casual approach toward his work.
Roman Polanski may have made a film about the devil, Rosemary’s Baby, and may have convinced Faye Dunaway on the set of Chinatown that he was Ol’ Scratch himself when he yanked one strand of her hair that he found offensive. But Handel’s threat to Ms. Cuzzoni, I think, was far more effective at really scaring the daylights out of someone.
Oh, well—the man is nothing. The work—and the message, this and every Christmas season—is everything. Rejoice.