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Can Progressives Stop Making My Christmas Traditions Political?


As I grew up in Minnesota, my family embraced several Christmas traditions, two of which we essentially rotated every year. One year we’d see Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” at the Guthrie theater. The next year we saw George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” at Orchestra Hall. Frankly, I preferred the former, but as I grew older, both became a delight.

Although I’ve moved, married, and have a family of my own, my parents continue these traditions, sometimes with my brother and me, most often now without us. This past weekend, my parents and other family members attended the Minnesota Orchestra’s performance of Handel’s “Messiah.”

My Wisconsin-raised dad always looks forward to an evening downtown: “I feel very cosmopolitan,” he says. Yet they returned to tell me the conductor—a guest, Douglas Boyd—had made political comments that were out of place and downright rude. It isn’t right to put politics over performance and bias over beauty, especially preceding a sacred piece.

Minnesota Traditions Include Politeness

I’ve spent most of my adulthood in dichotomies, you could say. I lived in Minnesota for most of my childhood; my parents have lived there 34 years and participated in dozens of activities that have become family traditions—indeed, traditions for many Minnesotans. While the home of Walter Mondale, Hubert Humphrey, and Jesse Ventura is notoriously politically Left, our politics and traditions, including admiring our vibrant arts community, don’t usually bubble up to the top simultaneously. Until this weekend.

My mom texted me the following day to say that at the beginning of the performance Boyd encouraged the audience to remain seated during the “Hallelujah” chorus. He suggested we might be better off ruled by King George again, who started the tradition of standing during that portion of the work, rather than by President-Elect Donald Trump.

When the Hallelujah chorus began, half of the audience stood and half remained seated. Not surprisingly, I haven’t seen any news reports confirming this, but my parents later discovered another set of friends had attended the performance in the front row. They too heard the rant and were surprised. My parents reported it was “awkward.” I would add reprehensible.

This Isn’t the Place for Politics

Not only is a cultural event not the time or place to talk about politics, the “Hallelujah” chorus and “Messiah” themselves have nothing to do with politics. The piece is typically performed around Christmas time, although also sometimes Easter. According to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, “in the 2014-2015 season alone, 13 out of the 22 largest American orchestras will perform the piece 38 times.”

“The Messiah oratorio premiered in 1742 when the German-born Handel was the preeminent composer in his adopted home of the United Kingdom. Handel’s name drew such a crowd that audience members were advised to leave their hoop skirts and swords at home for fear of overcrowding at the Messiah’s Dublin premiere.”

The “Messiah” came about in an unusual manner. Handel’s friend, Charles Jennens, was a “patron of the arts, and skilled in music, literature, and the Bible, he collaborated with Handel on some of his musical compositions.” After carefully selecting verses from the Bible that Jennens thought proved the divinity of Jesus, Jennens gave Handel the lyrics. In a letter to a friend, Jennens wrote about Handel, “I hope he will lay out his whole Genius and Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah.”

As it turned out, the pair were a gifted musical duo. Although depressed, irritated—it was said he could curse in five languages—and facing debtor’s prison, Handel immediately set to work on the music to accompany the sacred words. He completed the manuscript in an astonishing 24 days. When he completed the “Hallelujah” chorus, which is one of the most moving works of music in history, he said, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.” He concluded the manuscript with the letters, SDG: Soli Deo Gloria (to God be the glory). The “Messiah” “has been described by the early-music scholar Richard Luckett as “a commentary on [Jesus Christ’s] Nativity, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension.”

The fact that everyone traditionally stands during the “Hallelujah” chorus is based on hearsay that says King George II did so. Even this isn’t a well-documented fact. A correspondent for The Boston Globe writes:

Theories abound, the most common being that King George II, attending the London premiere of “Messiah’’ in March of 1743, was so moved by the “Hallelujah’’ that he stood up – and if the king stands, everybody stands. The only problem is that there is no contemporary evidence he was even at the concert; newspapers and eyewitnesses conspicuously fail to report any royal presence.

Still, many think if the king was there anddid stand, it was because he was in awe of the beauty and splendor of the majestic-sounding chorus bursting forth: “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” It’s not because he was making any political statement. So it doesn’t even make sense that Boyd would tie together a Trump presidency with the monarchy of King George II and Handel’s beloved work.

My parents didn’t pay to hear the political opinions of a conductor but to soak in an artistic interpretation of the words of scripture and to participate in a family tradition. My mother was so frustrated when she returned home, she e-mailed this note to the Minnesota Orchestra:

With three other family members, I attended Messiah Saturday evening. Not only were we encouraged to bypass tradition and sit during the “Hallelujah” chorus but it was implied by Douglas Boyd that perhaps we would be better off living under a king or dictatorship. At least half of the people there ignored his ignorant suggestion and stood for the chorus and if he wants to live under a king, I’m sure Russia would be happy to have him. I hardly think a musical venue is the place to disparage our political system. Does he realize he chose to perhaps offend over half of the audience in attendance who paid not a small amount of money to listen to his ignorance? Well of course he did. If we attend a tradition like Messiah, we like tradition and we like to stand for the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus. I also do not want my political choices criticized by the director. I don’t care what he thinks. I lived with his political choice for eight years. Grow up, tantrum aside and be a professional.

Political outcomes can be deeply upsetting. No doubt I expressed my own disappointment after the people twice elected President Obama. But there’s a time and a place for a discussion wherein people express strident political views. A performance of music composed by one of the greatest musical geniuses that celebrates the divinity of Jesus Christ isn’t one of them.