The “Messiah” and Festive Beauty

In December of 2019, I attended the annual presentation of Handel’s Messiah at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center in Notre Dame. I had always known the Hallelujah chorus but had never actually listened to the entirety of his work dedicated to the coming of Christ and was really excited to experience all of it for the first time. Despite the fact that it was exceptionally long (almost three hours!), I enjoyed it and appreciated how beautiful it was. However, I didn’t appreciate it then in the way that I do now, having learned something of the various ways in which beauty manifests itself in festival settings.

According to Hans-George Gadamer, beauty in art is characterized by play, symbol, and festival. Gadamer says that play is attributed to a combination of movement and purpose, which may feel a bit unusual to apply to a musical piece, especially one where none of the performers are exactly dancing around the stage and the audience sits exceptionally still except for the ill-timed cough in the middle of a sensitive musical moment. However, movement can be understood in a broader context than just physical motion. I attribute movement in this setting to sound in motion, as the music itself moves in a certain artistic and meaningful way, of course, with the purpose of giving praise and worship to Jesus Christ.

Meanwhile, symbol, according to Gadamer, takes on both veiled and unveiled presence and presents us the Task of Appropriation in order to properly interpret it. The unveiled presence refers to the symbol as it ‘stands,’ meaning that it is what it is. However, the veiled portion of presence refers to that which something is beyond its simple unveiled standing. It is that meaning beyond just the notes that are played or the words that are sung in the Messiah. It is through these words, notes, and various colors of harmony from bright and joyous to solemn and somber that we can appropriate the art, making it our own through our interpretation. Our interpretations rely on these artistic remnants of the time in which the art was created along with an element of where we stand in life today, creating a continuously evolving manner of interpretation or art such as this through the ages. For example, if I were to listen to Handel’s Messiah in the early 17th century, I would compare it to the Baroque music of the day and likely note dichotomies between the markedly classical aspects of the work next to the flowery and ornate music of my day. However, if I listened to Messiah today, I could compare its musical qualities with the unusual harmonic endeavors of the early 20th century or even with pop and Christian rock music which I would have had no idea about if I was the 17th century version of myself. Appropriation and interpretation of the symbol, therefore, evolves with time.

Gadamer’s ideas of festivity apply to the Messiah in its reliance on Christmastime and the Advent season. Gadamer writes that festive time relies more on feasts and seasons than it does on scientific denominations of days, weeks, and months. The musical work transcends normal temporal restrictions not only for its dependence on the Advent season, but also for the way in which audience members can dwell on it in a way that does not rely on wristwatches or alarms. When dwelling on artwork such as this, time is irrelevant because the art exposes its riches to us the longer we contemplate, whether it be just during the concert or in memory for weeks, months, or years after. The artwork has an eternal quality to it in that it is experienced, but then it is remembered and exists inside the person who experiences it for as long as he or she can remember. The art continues its task of worship beyond its initial exposure.

However, this is not the only way to consider festivity or festive time. Joseph Pieper posits that festivity also functions as a contemplative time beyond just an escape from the toils of everyday work and as an affirmation of goodness. In the Messiah, Handel offers much more than just an escape, as the texts he draws from carry significant theological weight when studied closely. Pieper’s ideas are especially evident in the buildup to the Hallelujah, as the art is so well crafted that the music aligns with the text and it is rather easy for a listener to actively participate with their own emotional responses to the music as it crescendos to the joyous coming of Christ with the first major use of brass instruments in the entire work. This responsiveness serves to validate the classification of this art as festive, but that is not to say that it is perfect.

Pieper references Friedrich Nietzsche speaking on the dependence of festivity on the ability of people to appreciate the festivity. If the people themselves cannot understand the festive nature of the artwork, then comes the Tragedy of the Arts and Worship. With time, art has grown apart from worship and people have generally lost the ability to worship through art, electing to use it for entertainment or escapist purposes. They have lost the aforementioned characteristics of play, symbol, and festivity, which I did not know about when I listened for the first time in 2019. Hopefully, the next time around, I can be more aware and more fully appreciate the gift of art that I am given.

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