Sunday, December 20, 2009

Rebel without a chorus

If there's one critical cliché we could use less of around here it's the cliché of "rebellion." To be blunt, the "rebel" has become the bobo equivalent of the Victorian virgin: an ideal that everyone pretends to espouse but nobody actually lives up to. And as such, it's just tedious, and gums up the works of any kind of intelligent dialogue about the arts.

So let's be honest, for once, shall we, and admit that our local print readers are not "rebels"? Not the Globe or Phoenix readers, much less the Herald or Metro readers (obviously). These people don't "dissent," they don't "subvert," they don't do anything but consume. What they consume, or course, are niche cultural products designed to simulate rebellion. Which is hardly the same thing.

But what prompts this latest rant, Mr. Hub Review, you may ask? In a word, the combined forces of Matthew Guerrieri and Sebastian Smee in the Globe this weekend - although frankly, my irritation with this moribund meme has been rising for months, if not years. Both reviewers have a penchant for claiming consumer choices are rebellious - indeed, one often senses that their "arguments," such as they are, inevitably edge toward that final evaluation: is the work at hand "subversive," or not? If yes - the work is good; if no - well, what would Elvis and James Dean say?

Of course I don't think Elvis or James Dean would have much to say about the "Hallelujah" chorus, in any case - still, Guerrieri, in a lengthy piece in Saturday's Globe, decides that the current vogue among "secular" fans of Handel's Messiah to no longer stand during its climactic chorus "ranks as one of the more effortless demonstrations of anti-authoritarian dissent."

But can anti-authoritarian dissent ever be "effortless"? I'd argue no. If you have expended no effort, you have not dissented. You have merely pretended you have dissented. The choice of what music you download for free does not qualify as an act of dissent. The fact that you have holes in your jeans torn by Marc Jacobs does not mark you as a rebel. And sitting through the "Hallelujah" chorus does not make you James Dean.

What it makes you instead is a certain kind of consumer, grazing the culture and filtering every experience through a self-conscious (and self-satisfied) cocoon. You may dislike the "monarchical overtones" of Messiah (as Guerrieri puts it - and he certainly digs up a lot of info about whether or not George II stood up, and why), but you're quite comfortable with the new spirit of the beehive - that pleasing buzz of "critical thinking" and liberal-tarianism that seems to have somehow outlasted the Clinton administration. Because oddly, while he's long-winded on Hanoverian politics, Guerrieri is all but silent about our own. Because, well - that would be rebellious, wouldn't it.

There is a whiff of politics in Guerrieri's essay, I suppose, in that the "Hallelujah" spoilers insist on framing Messiah as secular music (even though when they say "secular" they really mean "academic"). That's right - a secular piece about the central theological concept of Christianity. Uh-huh. The standard dodge of this obvious self-contradiction is the argument that Handel wrote his oratorio for commercial consumption, and never performed it in a church (indeed, its length and structure make it unsuitable for actual religious service). But does venue determine content? I think not - all this proves is that in the eighteenth century, explicitly sacred music had a commercial public. For to be blunt, Messiah is not like such oratorios as Saul, which are drawn from religious texts but are essentially dramatic in form and content; it is, instead, openly theological - an explication, in fact, of Christian theology.

So to my mind, the secularists have some 'splainin' to do. They like to pretend that Messiah is merely a set of pretty songs, or dances - "an entertainment," as one local presenter would have it. But just try to convince yourself of that as Handel digs further and further into the human issues of death, and hope, and love and guilt and redemption that underpin the story of Christ; in many ways, Messiah is deeper than the religion it celebrates. That's why I'm happy to stand for its chorus, even though I wouldn't stand for our evil-gay pope, or the Southern Baptist Convention, or the Windsors (or, frankly, the Israel lobby). To me, Messiah operates above and beyond all that. Some old British queen you've never heard of once said, "Only connect" - and rising during Messiah is one small way to connect. Only it doesn't mean you're connecting with your inner monarchist, or Christianist, any more than lighting a menorah means you support the Orthodox subjugation of women. It is, instead, a statement that traditions can be transformed over time, perhaps even into something that more accurately maps to a work's original vision. (For Messiah isn't so much secular as it is multi-cultural: it's a gay German's commercial vision of an Episcopalian mystery.)

So yes, Virginia, you should stand for the "Hallelujah" chorus - not for George II, of course, but for Handel, and the performers, and for the joy of the work itself - a work that in its depth and glory is one of those "outliers" that Malcolm Gladwell (you like him, right?) is always talking about. But hey, why stop with the Messiah? Feel free to stand up for Beethoven's Ninth, and Don Giovanni, and the last scenes of King Lear and The Cherry Orchard, too. Stand up early. Stand up often. To quote Michael Stipe, now stand.

(Still to come: the rebel cliché, Sebastian Smee, and Marcel Duchamp.)


  1. Two comments:

    First, I think you're making a straw-man argument here. Guerrieri's saying that sitting through the Hallelujah chorus "ranks as one of the more effortless demonstrations of anti-authoritarian dissent," sounds to me like a gentle way of saying just what you're saying -- that it's not rebellious at all. In other words, "if you like to think of yourself as a rebel, and sitting through the chorus makes you feel like one, well then go ahead and pretend."

    Second but more important, you started out with a defense of the explicitly religious nature of Handel's Messiah, but somehow you ended up here:

    So yes, Virginia, you should stand for the "Hallelujah" chorus - not for George II, of course, but for Handel, and the performers, and for the joy of the work itself...

    Conspicuously absent from your list is any religious motivation--what about standing for Christ?--which, despite the way you framed the argument, Guerrieri explicitly acknowledges and you don't.

  2. Ah, the ole Anonymous-Blogger trick! I'll let this one through, though, because you're civil.

    But just btw, Guerrieri doesn't specifically discuss "standing for Christ," although he does mention "a conscious homage to the divine." Personally, I've never felt I was standing for Jesus during the "Hallelujah" chorus, although actually, why not? Jesus was cool. I'll stand up for him any day. If your idea of "dissent" is dissing Jesus, then I feel sorry for you. And just before you write in, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens - ponder, for a moment, why atheism has never produced a joyful artistic touchstone like Messiah!

    As for your "straw-man" claim - you don't convince me. Note that Guerreri spends more than 10 paragraphs deconstructing and dissecting the historical precedents for standing during the "Hallelujah" chorus, but doesn't waste even a single sentence analyzing what sitting down during might actually mean. This is because he's confident his audience (primed as it is by the general culture) will sympathize with those who sit - they won't be perceived as the kill-joys that they really are. And that's too bad. It's always too bad when phony 'rebellion' takes precedence over community and (benign) tradition. That's one of the principles of this blog, btw.

  3. As a performer of dozens of Messiahs, I've always found the 'standing' mildly distracting, much like the unison turning of pages as an audience follows along some lengthy translation, But I say: if the spirit moves you to stand - stand! On the other hand, I've never stood for the Hallelujah chorus and it never struck me as remotely rebellious or in any way connected to my feelings about Jesus. Interesting post...