By Fr. Graeme Napier, Rector at St John’s in the Village
In 2004, when I worked at Westminster Abbey, I was responsible for planning the UK’s national memorial service for Alistair Cooke (1908-2004). Cooke was best known in the UK for his radio show Letter from America, but here, of course, for his television show Masterpiece Theater. I worked closely with his daughter, Susan, an ordained minister in the USA, on choosing music for the service. She was keen that we include music by Leonard Bernstein. She explained: “My father was a friend of Leonard Bernstein and introduced him to baroque music: in fact he introduced him to the Messiah.” An interesting spiritual introduction! What she meant, of course, was that Cooke had introduced Bernstein to the music of George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) and to his oratorio entitled Messiah (not The Messiah). Messiah is certainly Handel’s best-loved and most-performed work.
It premiered in Dublin in 1742 and received other performances in England shortly after. Its introduction to us in Manhattan, however, was in rather odd circumstances. It was first performed, in part, here in Manhattan in January 1770, in a tavern by Bowling Green at the south end of Broadway by a bankrupt musician, William Tuckey, as a fund-raiser for himself! He advertised it as A Sacred Oratorio on the Prophecies concerning Christ; and he did very well out of it. More Manhattan performances followed and by the 19th century performances of the oratorio had become ‘traditional’.
This year there will be a number of traditional performances of the oratorio, including the annual large-scale one by the New York Philharmonic way up in Riverside Church and one in Carnegie Hall. But down here in the West Village there will be, for the first time, a unique Christmas Day presentation of the work at St John’s in the Village (on the corner of West 11th St and Waverly Place): Messiah in liturgical performance within a Christmas Day service. This is possible because so many of the texts of an Episcopal Christmas Day service are set to music in Handel’s work: Gloria (Glory to God) and Agnus Dei (Behold the Lamb of God), and also, of course, the Christmas readings, such as For unto us a child is born and Lift up your heads, o ye gates (both from the Hebrew Bible) and such New Testament texts as If God be for us, who can be against us and There were shepherds abiding in the fields…. Christmas Day Messiah is open to those of all faiths and of none; and all Christians are welcome to receive Holy Communion. As far as we know this is the first time anywhere in the world that such a performance has been given.
The Strathmere Ensemble (Jack Kulowitsch (double-bass) with his colleagues on violins, viola, cello, and piano/harpsichord) is well-known in the Village, having performed a number of WestView News free-to-seniors concerts over the years. After an impasse during the pandemic, the Strathmeres are keen to make music (free to all, not just to seniors, on this occasion) once more at St John’s with St John’s professional choir, in this unique presentation of Handel’s Messiah on Christmas Day at 11am. Spaces are limited, as St John’s is a cozy church, so to be sure of a seat it is best to register (strathmeremessiah.eventbrite.com) in advance. Bring a mask and proof of full vaccination. This liturgical performance of Messiah is followed by festive drinks in Revelation Gallery (St John’s art gallery).