Retelling the Sacred: Trinity Church Wall Street Presents Handel's 'Messiah'

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“Show of hands first, how many of you know that tonight’s Messiah going to be a little different than normal?” 

Ms. Brailey words resonated among the 19th century arches.

“Okay so maybe not even half. So, for the rest of you we’re flip flopping everything.”

My attention was caught. I immediately had mixed feelings. Being a purist—to an extent—on many things I was hesitant. But, I’m always willing to be persuaded. She continued:

“So, the sopranos are singing the tenor arias. The Basses are singing the mezzo arias and vice verse. We’re even flipping things in one of the choruses, but I won’t tell you which one, you have to…wait and see.”

You could sense in the air a mixture of feelings. But, just like myself, you could tell that people were willing to consider the possibility.

“This already happens with a few of the aria’s in the Messiah, ‘Who May Abide’ is frequently done by both mezzos and baritones—basses. But, besides the typical cuts that are done in the Messiah there’s sort of a standard convention these days as to how it’s done. But if you happen to have had the chance to look at a score in many editions there is an appendix in the back that includes several of the arias in different keys, and even a few different movements that are generally included.”

You could tell she was excited and nervous—but mainly excited. Her excitement was contagious.

“For a variety I have always thought this would be a fun idea, so I got excited when Julian sent this email. But, in rehearsing it, I think many of us found something that we didn’t expect—which I think is actually very relevant to the public conversations we are having today about gender and expectations of masculinity and femininity. So, for example, you know when we hear an aria like ‘The Trumpets Shall Sound’ typically you expect this big thundering bass, right? That’s not what you are gonna get tonight. The wonderful Mezzo friend of mine Ms. Brackett is singing that tonight—and it’s not just that it’s this female voice singing this text and heralding the triumph of the resurrection—but if you look at the typical roles that the voices play, especially in Baroque music, they are generally pretty narrow. The soprano is the true believer, the soul, the angel, the Mezzo is generally the maternal one, but to hear this text sung in a voice you don’t expect I think really makes you think about it in a new way.”

She continued, elaborating and giving historical justification to the decisions made. This eased some of the initial feelings of skepticism I experienced. It calmed the purist voice in my head, soothing it into a lull.

“And, like the duet ‘He Shall Feed His Flock’ is now this big beautiful bass and this lovely tenor. And, to hear this really masculine voice singing these words of comfort I think is really beautiful and profound. And, I and several of my colleagues found it very moving. This Idea of flip flopping isn’t so strange—Handel himself would transpose arias for new singers and new performances, so I think there is a little bit of historical practice here also—but I would like to encourage you to also listen to the text tonight and to examine how you think about the gender issues that we are talking about in this day and age. So I hope it’s not disappointing. I hope it is revelatory. And, we hope you enjoy. Thank you.”

Ms. Brailey resumed her place among the choir, and the the first soloist resumed her place beside the conductor to sing the first Arioso.

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It was snowing when I left my room uptown to catch the Two train to the Wall Street station. I had been looking forward to this night all week and it was finally here.

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I don’t remember what exactly spurred the tradition into existence, but when I moved to New York in the fall of 2016, it rekindled me desire to connect with a side of me that I hadn’t tapped into since before the military. 

Growing up in the Willamette valley there weren’t too many opportunities to participate in cultural experiences. But in the winter of 2006 I remember taking my 1987 Subaru Justy and a couple of my friends to attend Western Oregon’s performance of Handel’s Messiah. I was a senior in high school at this time, and was a member of my schools choir. And something about it moved me in a profound way. 

I hadn’t had the opportunity for 10 years, but finally I was living in a city where participating in cultural experiences was possible, if not encouraged. So, I purchased tickets to the New York Philharmonics production of the Messiah. That was in 2016. This year, however, I chose to attend the Trinity Church production of Handel’s Messiah, conducted by Julian Wachner.

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Trinity Church stood majestically at the end of the street when I came up from the warm subway. Its neo-gothic spire jutting into the sky. Snow whirled around and the ground was slick. But this was not the original iteration of Trinity Church on this plot of land.

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In 1696 the plot of to build the first Trinity Church was purchased by the Church of England. King William the III the following year gave it it’s charter, and it’s rent was to be 60 bushels of wheat. In 1968 the first iteration of Trinity Church was built. 

In 1705, Queen Anne expanded the parishes land to 215 acres, and over the next 50 years two schools—Trinity School and Kings College (now Columbia University) would be built. 

Finally, in 1776 the church was destroyed  in the Great New York City Fire.

Meanwhile, across the pacific, two men following in the trend of English language operas, which had become popular in the mid 1700’s, worked on what would become one of the most famous Oratorios to ever grace the stage. As Charles Jennens—the librettist—put in a letter to his friend Edward Holdsworth: “I hope [Handel] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other subject. The Subject is Messiah.”

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The Messiah, was composed in three to four weeks in 1741 and eventually premiered at Musick Hall in Dublin on April 13, 1742.  The piece was so popular and so many people arrived that the management pleaded with the women not to wear hoops so that they could fit as many people possible into the hall.

Handel also found success with the piece when it was brought to London audiences, however it did take time for it to be recognized as a Christmas favorite and tradition. The decision to premier it in Dublin was due to some of Handel's lack of success in recent past works and fear of a critical failure at this time, and since Dublin was the budding economic powerhouse, it was chosen to test the unorthodox loose narrative piece about the life of Christ.

While the Messiah is often attributed to Handel, he wasn't alone in the creation of the work. Charles Jennens—a oxford trained Shakespeare scholar—wrote the libretto. Jennens purpose in writing the piece was to be a declarative statement about Christ's divinity in the wake of the rise of rationalized atheism.

It is uncertain how Handel felt about religion, but his fondness of grand myths and legend is known, and this piece fit the bill.

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It seems like nearly every day a new person speaks out about an experience they have had regarding sexual misconduct or mistreatment. More often than not those speaking out, the victims, are women or women passing. The #metoo movement, paired with recent events in American civil and political life, ignited a fire, and started a conversation.

What are the implications of gender? What of Masculinity? What of Femininity? How do they intersect with power? These are only a few of the many questions being discussed in the public spheres. 

Last year we had the first woman presidential nominee in major party. She, unfortunately, lost to a man with a horrific track record of using his power to manipulate women. Meanwhile, the republican front runner in an Alabama special election for a senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions was a man accused of multiple instances of Ephebophilia, sexual assualt while charading as a and fundamentalist evangelical. 

It is this intersection of the “patriarchal religions” and gender roles that makes this particular production of Handel’s Messiah interesting, as many religious folk hold to the belief that women shall not take high leadership roles such as that of a pastor.

At the time when Handel wrote this, the conversations surrounding the roles of women were in discussion. In fact, Mary Wollstonecraft—one of the grandmothers of feminism—wrote her Vidication of the Rights of Woman as a push back on the conversations surrounding gender roles (the roles of women in particular) in 1792. Only a few decades after the premier of the Messiah.

Knowing this historical context is important, and pairing it with what we know of women in patriarchal religions—like Christianity—helps us develop a baseline to think about the ramifications of flipping the genders on their head, which this particular production chose to do.

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After the context was given to the particular differences in this performance as opposed to others, Scene 1: Isaiah’s Prophecy of Salvation began—Sinfony.

Nothing can describe the sensations one receives when hearing the Baroque Orchestra strike their first notes of Sinfony in Trinity church. The acoustical reflections of the hall reverberate in a haunting way when the first few dramatic notes are stuck. 

The first musical phrases of the piece are dramatic and mysterious. Sinfony is in E minor, and while the piece isn’t directly related to the following vocal pieces, one familiar with the Oratorio as a complete work, does recognize its relationship to the piece by its rhythms and passages as clearly being of the production. 

Following Sinfony, is the Recitative “Comfort ye my people” from Isaiah 40, 1-3. This piece is normally done by a tenor, but for this performance—do to the flipping of the parts on their heads—it would be performed by the beautifully talented soprano Ms. Molly Netter. 

I was already overcome by emotion witnessing the Sinfony, that when the first she let from her lips “Comfort ye…” in, I could not help but continue be overcome with emotion. The only descriptions I can give to the emotions are that of a burden being lifted. The articulation was with such gentle grace that watching I felt a single tear fall from my left eye and drip down my cheek. This was by far, one of the best performances of the piece I have seen yet.

My favorite piece within the first part of the Messiah is the final chorus at the end of Scene 3: The prophecy of Christ's birth. The song, which has always reminded me of Christmas, is titled “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” and just like nearly every other aspect of the evening, they did not disappoint. Following the Chorus, and beginning Scene 4: The annunciation to the shepherds, is a break from accompanied pieces and we receive the famous Pifa—“Pastoral Symphony.” Making this particular scene the more interesting and beautiful, we were graced by three soloists from the Trinity Youth Chorus. Each one of them sang a different Arioso or Recitative. This provided a beautiful telling of the story. It was as if four young angels approached the shepherds announcing the coming of Christ. 

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The walk from my room to the redline was slick, and I was nervous. I had left myself an hour and a half to get to the venue, but unfortunately, you never know whether or not MTA would delay you.

When I got inside the 135 station, I was pleased to see that there was a two minute estimate on the arrival of the next subway to take me downtown. 

This is good. It would take me 45 minutes—with no delays to get to the venue and so if all went smoothly I would arrive with plenty of time. Unfortunately, with the MTA one can experience severe delays depending on possible unforeseen events, and even giving yourself a 45 minute buffer may not be enough time. I remember a time when I was nearly late for a production of “Something Rotten” and I had given myself a 30 minute buffer. I boarded the subway when it arrived, and we were off. 

Along the way I played one of my daily podcasts that I would normally listen to on my commutes, and observed the comings and goings of other riders. It’s Friday, around 6 in the evening, people are getting off of work, others are making their way to dinner and happy hour. Everyone is bundled up in winter attire.

72nd street…42nd street…34th street…14th street…

We were making incredible time. My fears began to subside. Periodically, I would try to scroll through Facebook like the addicted Millennial I am, unfortunately while there is excellent wifi at the subway stops the tunnels still have not implemented wifi. It’s only a matter of years—given we still have the internet (my concern triggered by the recent FCC vote to repeal Net Neutrality).

Canal Street…Chambers Street…Park Place…Fulton Street…Wall Street. 

I exited the subway car. It was 7pm. I made it.

I felt tired, and the Messiah is long. It would probably be in my best interest to find some coffee, so I did. I was lucky to realize there was a Starbucks on my way to the venue so I picked up a tall drip coffee and braced myself for the cold.

It was still snowing, as I came up from the warm subway. And looking west I could see the grand gothic steeple jutting into the pitch black sky.

I pressed towards it, careful not to fall on the slippery snow-covered sidewalk.

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Both men and women are taught very specific gender rules to follow, and this relates to the music world as well. Indeed, for many years women were not allowed to participate in public singing. And, when they were they were required to sing very specific roles. As Ms. Brailey explained: 

"If you look at the typical roles that the voices play, especially in Baroque music, they are generally pretty narrow. The soprano is the true believer, the soul, the angel, the Mezzo is generally the maternal one."

This, unfortunately is completely unsurprising. To this day there is still widespread discrimination and mistreatment and subjugation of women by men, why wouldn't women then, in Baroque music, be sanctioned to very specific conceptions of the role of women as viewed by men—maternal, pure, angelic, submissive rather than majestic, bold, angry, powerful. 

But why shouldn't they? What can be experienced when when we flip those roles? What advance towards progress can be made in society by such a choice? What can we learn? The answers to those questions are mostly private ones that each listener will have to answer to themselves. But, I must say, that the beauty of living in an age whereby such question can be asked put into practice make me thrilled to be alive.  

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Upon reaching the parish, I was greeted by two lovely gate keepers, and they told me I needed to drink my coffee before entering the venue, but they let me pass inwards still. I quickly downed my coffee, as I looked around at the ornate architecture. The two doors at the entrance of the the parish were ornately molded Iron, by the looks of it. And depicted different biblical stories—revelations VI: Verses 15, 16, and 17—was listed below the top panel on the right hand door. Below it a passage from Luke, and what can be described as an Angel speaking to a kneeling woman—Mary—I assume. And around the panels seem to be depictions of different men, though I did no really recognize any of them. Both doors had three panels, and each one told a different story. I stayed long enough to appreciate their beauty, but after I quickly finished my coffee, I went inside. 

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Following the Great fire, the the second Trinity Church was built then consecrated in 1790. It was politically significant because President Washington and members of his government often worshiped there including John Jay and Alexander Hamilton (who is buried in the adjacent Graveyard. The second church was eventually torn down after being weakened in 1838 due to the severe snow storms.

Finally the third, and current iteration of the Church was built in 1846. And, since then it has been important location for multiple pivotal in history. On 9/11, the church was a refuge amidst the chaos. And during the Occupy Wall Street movement the church provided moral and practical support. Three of the clergy were even arrested when demonstrators attempted to occupy a space called "LentSpace." .

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Stepping into the third iteration of the Trinity Church, I was immediately in awe of the majestic nature of the beautiful church and it’s neo-gothic architecture

There was a ticket checker, and she directed me to an usher who gave me a program and helped me take my seat.

Being a poor college student, I could not afford on. Of the states int he center, and while I thought I was choosing an excellent seat with only partial visibility, it turned out that seat A104 was nearly no visibility. To make up for the lack of visibility, however, the performance was also broadcasted onto large screens, one of them was displayed directly in front of me.

I was a little disappointed, as I wanted a more pure experience and viewing the production on a screen—even though I was in the venue—didn’t seem to be very pure. Nevertheless I was optimistic.

I took off my layers and made my comfortable—snapping a few photos to share with friends and family on Facebook. Eventually my row filled up with other people including another man who was equally disappointed with the lack of visibility. I told him that if I were to ever return I would choose a row a few rows back as the visibility would be less obstructed. He agreed. “Next Year.”

The other seats began to fill, and the musicians began to take their places. There was a quiet hum as the musicians tuned and tested their instruments, making subtle adjustments.

Then, things got quiet as the Concertmaster, Robert Mealy, provided the proper tuning for the first part on his violin. The other instruments responded.

The show was about to begin.

The Choir took their places too, and finally, the conductor, Julian Wachner, took his position at the head of the stage. 

He spoke a few words, talking about the tradition of the performance, then hinted at tonight being a bit different. In doing so, he invited one of the Soprano’s Ms. Sarah Brailey to speak about the nature of this particular performance.

 Example of the interior of gothic architecture. In the image we can see the Nave which leads to the Ambulatory. On the sides we see Pointed Arches held up by Piers and reinforced by Ribbing.

Example of the interior of gothic architecture. In the image we can see the Nave which leads to the Ambulatory. On the sides we see Pointed Arches held up by Piers and reinforced by Ribbing.

When I stepped into the venue I was immediately overcome with a pure sense of calm and awe. I had been in this venue before but it had been a while. The combination of my purpose for being here with the weather outside and the burden that had gathered over the past few months due to the intense nature of my education, seemed to be lifted. The ambiance provided by the lighting down the nave and how it reflected on the piers fading as it approached the rib and the rib vault. The matte brown paint on the ribbing provided a wonderful contrast to the cream colored walls and the dark wooden pews.

The tone of the room was warm and ballanced. Having seen the same production done in other venues which tended to feel much dryer, this venue, with its natural reverbs provided by the architectural design imbued the harmonics with a beautiful warmth that is very hard to describe otherwise.

My only real complaint with the venue are the seats, and while they are indeed padded, ones space is constrained. And, my space was intruded upon buy small carved wooden arches that jutted from the walls, and made it very uncomfortable to rest upon, likewise, there was a heater directly below my seat that I was afraid was going to potentially light me on fire from how hot it got. 

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Following the intermission after Part One, the performance continued to bless us. Mr. Massey, an alto, performed a wonderful performance of Scene 5's “Thou art gone up on high.” And, while the end of the orotorio doesn't end with the “Hallelujah Chorus,” Trinity Choir didn't let us down. The piece was just as majestic and resonant as one would expect from a choir at this caliper.

I can never help but feel sorry, however for the Timpanist who performs with this oratorio, as s/he is only really utilized for the “Hallelujah Chorus.” But, that is the reality of the job.

Finally, closing up Part 3, we were graced with a wonderful musical trio between Robert Mealy on violin, Ezra Seltzer on Violincello, and Mr. Parsons singing in alto “If God be for us, who can be against us.” 

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What are your thoughts? What do you think about flipping gender roles in traditional productions like this? Do you think the performance successfully achieved what it sought out to do? Is a production like this a place for social or political messages? Do you think the production should have sought to warn all of the audience that what they intended to do? I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Please discuss this with me below, and I will do my best to respond as much as I can.

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You can view this production for free, along with other productions at Trinity Church Wall Street on their website. They also stream their events live. Just go to their website under their video section. The link to the December 16th 2017 production of Handel’s Messiah is here:

You can also Donate to Trinity Church here: https://www.trinitywallstreet.org/give