The setting was not a stable in Bethlehem, but Macy’s department store in Philadelphia. The time was not Christmas, but Oct. 30, 2010, at high noon. The attendants were not shepherds, but shoppers. The singers were not angels, but 650 choristers from 28 different participating organizations. Nonetheless, in this secular setting, the Messiah arrived and brought joy and good cheer to a surprised and most appreciative gathering of Saturday customers.
In prosaic terms, it is referred to as a “Random Act of Culture.” But it was highly organized. The singers mingled in with the crowd disguised as shoppers. Organ music from the Wanamaker Organ — the world’s largest pipe organ — was broadcast through the store’s public-address system. On cue, the 650 choristers began singing the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah. The result was extraordinary. Suddenly, the throng was united not by materialism, but humanity.
Perhaps music makes its most stirring impact when it arrives, as it does to the minds of composers, when it is unbidden and unannounced.
When George Frederick Handel completed this chorus, he is said to have exclaimed to his servant: “I did think I did see all heaven before me, and the great God himself.” He later confided to a physician, “I think God has visited me.” And to Lord Kinnoull, after the first London performance of Messiah, he said: “I should be sorry, my Lord, if I have succeeded in entertaining them; I wanted to make them better.”
The composer wanted people to relive — by hearing the Messiah — something of what he experienced when he was writing it.
Music has extraordinary power to heighten awareness, lift the heart, enrich the soul, transform the atmosphere and bring hope. Shopping does not do this. Ernest Becker, in his Pulitzer-winning book The Denial of Death, complains, “Modern man is drinking himself and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing.”
In Les Hommes Contre l’Humaine, philosopher Gabriel Marcel recounts the following personal experience: “I was coming home from a concert where I had heard Bach played, and I experienced in myself a revival of a feeling or rather of a certainty that seems to have been lost in our time: the honor being human.”
“The mass of men,” wrote Thoreau, “lead lives of quiet desperation.” We have little awareness of the great dignity and value that is inherit in being human and the rich potentialities that lie before us. We are, says T. S. Eliot, “distracted from distraction by distraction.” There is entertainment, sports, dining, chatter, cocktail parties and shopping. And then, out of the blue, the Messiah arrives, lifting the souls of countless department-store patrons to an awareness of a larger, more resplendent world — one that surrounds them, but rarely breaks into their consciousness.
We find this same image played to great effect in the motion picture The Shawshank Redemption (1994). Tim Robbins’ character uses his privileged position with the prison governor to broadcast throughout the prison a recording of Duettino Sull’aria (a little duet on the breeze) from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Inmates stop what they were doing. They are, like the shoppers at Macy’s, transfixed, in awe of this completely unexpected gift. As two female vocalists express in music something from another realm, the honey-toned voice-over of Morgan Freeman narrates: “I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words and makes your heart ache because of it.”
It was as if the Messiah had come to a maximum-security prison. The music seemingly had the power to liberate the inmates from their humdrum preoccupations and enrich their souls. “It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away. And for the briefest of moments,” Freeman adds, “every last man at Shawshank felt free.”
Music has this liberating power. Whether it enters the brightly lit atmosphere of a modern department store or the “drab little cage” of a Gothic-style penitentiary, it can free people from their momentary confinements.
Great music reminds us of who we are — something we need to be reminded about again and again, so that we do not sink too deeply into the mire of materialism. I like to think of Handel observing the multitude at Macy’s and being assured that the listeners were not merely being entertained, but, like the atmosphere, were truly being transformed.
And this, of course, is the essence of the Messiah’s arrival at Christmas.
Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University
and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary
and Mater Ecclesiae College.