A Handel on Life

Wallet – check.
Phone – check.
Jacket – check.
Tickets – check.
Walking sticks (necessary for the Hallelujah Chorus!) – check.
Little plastic card thingy to get back into our apartment – check.
Favourite Wife (essential) – check.

85 minutes before the conductor raises his baton and we are on our way to Handel’s Messiah after months of eager planning.  The Melbourne Recital Centre is about a mile’s walk, down several inner city blocks and across the river, but we have plenty of time. 

50 Minutes-Before-The-Conductor-Raises-His-Baton: Here we are! Abuzz with arriving patrons.

35 M-B-T-C-R-H-B: We present our tickets to an important looking usher, double checking that there won’t be any issues with Bugger (the power wheel chair). “All is well”, we are smilingly reassured, “We’ve never put a chair as big as yours on our lift,” (really?) “But all will be well!”  We order tea at the bar. Something slightly stronger for Favourite Wife, who is not so quick to be smilingly reassured.

25 M-B-T-C-R-H-B: we venture to the usher’s desk, and are promptly ushered to the lifts, and up to the first floor.  (First floor?  Must be right, but I had expected to be higher up with our Dress Circle tickets).

20 M-B-T-C-R-H-B:  The wheelchair lift that descends 8 steps is certainly on the small side.  It has ‘death-bars’ front and rear that swing rapidly up or down as buttons are pressed by our ushering usher. Designed for safety no doubt, the death-bars appear more likely to take a life than save one.  I need to quickly duck to avoid being sconed by the rear death-bar, and after several near misses I have to pull Bugger’s head rest away before the lift will move. 

16 M-B-T-C-R-H-B:  At the bottom of 8 steps our usher ushers us though a door, a door that leads into the stalls directly beneath the stage.  NO, NO!  Our tickets are for the front row in the Circle!  As I show the usher I remember how I booked these precious tickets.  It took two days of computer generated phone calls to find to the right person who could assure me that wheelchair access to the front row of the Circle was possible and permitted, days during which I could see the seats disappearing from the auditorium’s on-line booking plan.  I finally purchased the only remaining pair of seats in the dress circle, in the very front row.  A couple of days later the entire venue was sold out. 

13 M-B-T-C-R-H-B: Back up the 8 steps.  The swinging death-bars are even less obliging in reverse. Down they come as I duck obligingly, and up they go again with no movement of the lift.  Our obviously unnerved usher repeats this at least a dozen times, to no avail.

9 M-B-T-C-R-H-B:  The usher phones for back up; and I face a dilemma.  To fiddle with the controls while we wait, or not to fiddle?  Fiddle, obviously! I try the buttons.  I sneak a go with the remote control.  Down death bars / up death bars; but the platform will not ascend.

6 M-B-T-C-R-H-B: The uber-usher arrives with the upset-under-usher in an apologetic panic; more button pressing and death-bar dodging, but no progress! 

5 M-B-T-C-R-H-B: The Public Address Systems offers its last stern warning to Patrons to be seated; and I have a thought.  Bugger is squashed onto this little platform, and perhaps that is the problem: I edge slightly towards the swinging death-bar which seems to release pressure on a thingummy-gadget, and we are off and up!

3 M-B-T-C-R-H-B and we are back in the lift, heading to the second floor with our usher gushing regret.

2 M-B-T-C-R-H-B: At the door…..

1 M-B-T-C-R-H-B and we are in our seats, Bugger safely stowed a short distance away.  Phew.

Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of Hosts’
yet once a little while,
and I will shake the heav’ns and the earth,
the sea and the dry land.

The first baritone solo shook our innards!  We are unprepared for the astonishing voice of Teddy Tahu Rhodes, with his incredible power and pure tone.  Fabulous. 

For unto us a child is born,
unto us a son is given,
and the government shall be upon his shoulder;
and his name shall be called
Wonderful, Counsellor,
The Mighty God,
The Everlasting Father,
The Prince of Peace.

The precise, exhilarating power of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus at full tilt!  Wonderful!  Mighty!  I’m sure I saw the timpanist smile at the conductor as he was brought in repeatedly to beat out this dramatic chorus.

Behold the Lamb of God,
that taketh away the sins of the world.

Pure, subtle gravity from the soloists.

And with his stripes we are healed

Isn’t this phrase one of the most oddly phrased in the whole oratorio?  The music is strange, it is enigmatic.  I wonder if Handel was wondering, as I do, what this finally means?

All we, like sheep, have gone astray,
we have turned ev’ry one to his own way;          

played at frenetic, even frivolous pace, and suddenly the conductor pulls hard on the reigns, the key shifts to the minor, the chorus sings this line only once, with dramatic solemnity:

And the Lord hath laid on Him
the iniquity of us all.    

and a sustained, searing silence fills the room. The most profound moment in Handle’s Messiah.

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! HALLELUJAH!
For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth,

We stand for the Hallelujah Chorus, as audiences have done by tradition for more than 250 years.  The Messiah is said to be the most performed piece of music in human history, and somehow this act of standing is significant to me: reflecting the countless generations of humanity who stand before God. The repeated words of church liturgy have a similar effect at times: subsuming the individual into the community of faith. I remember hapily that my Father, several of our friends and family and my Godmother are listening right now to the radio broadcast of the concert.

I know that my Redeemer liveth,
and the He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth.
And though worms destroy this body,
yet in my flesh shall I see God.

This soprano solo is unspeakably beautiful.  Crystal clear, so pure. 

The French Horn shall sound,
and we shall be raised incorruptible.

The French Horn? What was Mozart thinking?  I have been confidently predicting this moment to Favourite Wife as the highpoint of the concert: Trumpet and baritone soloists pared in thrilling drama.  It was not.  I’ve never heard Mozart’s version of Handle’s Messiah before, and I’m a little dashed.  

But thanks be unto God,
ho giveth us the victory
through our Lord Jesus Christ.

And all too soon the concert is ending.  There is no slowing or stopping to savour the moment.  Indeed since the conductor first raised his baton it has been inevitably so.  It’s a sobering sensation that I have felt often in a performance. Time waits for no man. The end is nigh.  A life lesson.


At the bottom of the autograph edition of Handel’s score – 259 pages completed on September 14th, 1741, after just 24 days work – are the letters SDG, Soli Deo Gloria. ‘To God alone the glory’. 

Have you made it this far through my enormously long essay?  And yet it’s only a fraction of the superbly eventful weekend away my Favourite Wife and I have spent together.  Now we rattle homeward once more.




3 thoughts on “A Handel on Life

  1. Neroli Foster

    I love the SDG acronym. I see it could easily slip into daily venacular. I remember attending a Handel’s Messaiah recital in Tamworth, at your urging I’m sure. Moving as the Hallelujah chorus was, I think I was more moved by the recital of your own experience here. Its fantastic you get the opportunity and have the determination to do such things.

    Have a great Christmas which I’m sure will be shared with family and friends. Hopefully you will be able to get a ‘word’ in among them.

    We are heading north in our campervan for its first big adventures. .

    Merry Christmas.

  2. Neroli,
    Replying to this comment has become such a persistant thought over the last SIX months (I wish I had written straight away!) that it’s, become a part of my being. I might fall to pieces when I click “post”! I’ve got a vague recolection of urging you towards Handel so many years ago; but it’s your comment here that has stuck with me. Thank you for your enthusiasm – which is something I do remember well.


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