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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

In August of 1741, George Frideric Handel sat down to work. He was setting to music a libretto by Charles Jennens drawn from the King James and Great versions of the Bible that narrates the idea of a messiah as interpreted by Christianity. In September, he got up, having created one of the most galvanic, powerful, and gorgeous works of music ever written. He had been in debt, and depressed. Whether or not this contributed to the brilliance of the oratorio can only be guessed; need, of which sadness is a type, is known by many artists as the most provocative of all the muses.

He wrote Messiah in twenty-four days, and a critic later commented that in that case, it was obvious that Handel spent twenty-four days in heaven.

My annual Christmastime listening--and, unfortunately, singing along to--the double-album set I've owned for years (Sir Adrian Boult conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with Joan Sutherland, Grace Bumbry, and Kenneth McKellar) occurred not during the usual tree-trimming. I used it instead as soundtrack to my tortured revising of my book, hoping that something of the composer's genius would leach out into my own work; no freaking luck there, alas. But it did do what it always does: sweep me, as if I were before the inexorability of a twelve-foot wave in the ocean, to the sand gasping for breath. I do not believe in the particulars of what its elemental language conveys, but I believe that Handel believed. And I believe that he touched the angelic clouds of creativity.

For years I sang in choirs, and at this season was enlivened by the unparalleled experience that is being carried on the swells of the choral portions of Messiah . It is, perhaps, the only time I ever felt immortal. I both heard my voice (not a terribly good one, but adequate to singing in a choir, being generally on key its prime qualification) and heard it lost in the whole. That's the good kind of loss, by the way; a loss that magnifies.

To sing it now, at least once a year, feels like a need. It feeds a hunger. When you open your mouth to sing, with a multitude of others, "And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together" and "Arise, shine, for thy light is come . . . " you are transported. Where? In, to the mysterious heart of man's yearning, and out, to the hope that we are gloriously bigger than just one. In the choir, you are. "For ever and ever," rings out, again and again: Something is going to go on, beyond our small lives. Hallelujah.

Some believe what endures is an omnipotent deity, part of which came to earth one winter in order to spend a foreshortened life here with us, before ascending home again. Some, like me, believe that the only thing there is that lives on is the works of man, yet only those that are somehow touched by an otherworldly grace. This is one of those things, born of earth, rising toward heaven. It is enough. Most certainly, enough.