Over the years I have attended many performances of Handel’s Messiah, but no matter where it was performed (England, America, France, Israel) it was always sung in English. George Frederick Handel wrote the oratorio
using the text devised by Charles Jennens, based on the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. These texts were translated from the Latin Vulgate and German translations in the sixteenth century rather than from the Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic texts. Most of the passages in the oratorio are taken from the book of Isaiah, Psalms, and the New Testament.
My curiosity was aroused when I saw that the notice advertising the performance at Jerusalem’s YMCA one evening last week stated that the Messiah would be sung in Hebrew. This struck me as very strange, since in my mind, and on the basis of the dozens if not hundreds of performances of the oratorio I have attended, the music is inextricably allied to the text. It’s true that Mozart produced a re-orchestrated version to fit a German translation of the text, but this doesn’t seem to have caught on.
On the night of the performance the hall was almost full, and from overhearing several conversations I suspect that many of those in the audience were drawn from participants in one of the several Christian conferences held in the YMCA building that week. That suspicion was further reinforced when the moment came for the Hallelujah chorus. In England it is the custom for the audience to stand for this, apparently because King George II did so when he attended a performance of the work. In other countries the practice has not caught on, and here in Israel I only once saw one lone individual stand up, and remain standing on his own to the end of the chorus. But yesterday, as if impelled by a common motivation, the entire audience, consisting mainly of Americans and Israelis, got to its feet and stood until the chorus was over. Some people even joined in the singing, but the pleasant atmosphere prevailing in the hall seemed to make even this departure from the concert-going norm acceptable.
Another reason why I was eager to attend the performance was the statement on the advertisement that the proceeds of the concert would be donated to help Syrian refugees. And indeed, before the performance began, two members of the Musalka organization, which seeks to bring together the hearts and minds of Israelis and Palestinians, spoke briefly about their work. The spoke briefly in Hebrew, English and Arabic, also mentioning the fact that some students from the Bethlehem Bible College who intend to cross the border in order to further their cause, were present in the audience. One of the projects that Musalka sponsors is what is known as the ‘Syrian Refugee Challenge,’ whereby for a given period of time, in order to show solidarity with the plight of the refugees, an individual undertakes to live for a week on what a Syrian refugee is given. The contents of the bag containing the food items, consisting of half a kilo of rice, a kilo of chickpeas, a tin of sardines, and various other items, were on display during these speeches. It was, indeed, a very restricted diet, though the lady who had attempted the challenge didn’t seem very much the worse for wear as a result.
However, coming in the week when Syrian civilians were subjected to chemical attacks the evening acquired additional significance, though there was no mention of this in the speeches. At a time when barbarism and belligerence seem to be the order of the day in our region, it is some consolation to believe that we can unite the hearts and minds of people who are forced to live side by side but have not yet managed to find a peaceful modus vivendi.
The evening ended, as is always the case with this oratorio, with the uplifting display of choral singing embodied in the ‘Amen’ section. The conductor departed from tradition by giving the first few ‘amens’ to each soloist by turn, and only subsequently bringing in the whole choir. ‘Amen’ and ‘Hallelujah’ are among the few Hebrew words that have found their way into the English language. When I asked the conductor, American-born David Loden, why he had decided to perform the text in Hebrew he explained that it was so that the audience would understand the words, in keeping with Handel’s original intention.
I’m not convinced that that was what Handel wanted to achieve, nor that much of the audience at the YMCA could understand Hebrew. In my opinion, the original language of the oratorio, the language in which it was written, suits the music better than the Hebrew phrases, however close to the original verses of the Bible from which they may have come. I must confess that hearing the soprano sing ‘Gili’ instead of ‘Rejoice’ grated on my ear and disturbed my sense of the continuity of the piece. But the soloists, choir and orchestra all played their parts with supreme musicality and attention to diction, creating a refreshing new take on the familiar oratorio.