The Year We Messed Up The Messiah
December 22nd, 2009

George Frederick Handel, upon hearing the first performance of his Messiah, is said to have remarked that heaven above opened up, and he heard a chorus of angels. What he didn’t hear was trombones—mainly because in his haste to complete the oratorio in time for Christmas, he had forgotten to compose a part for them.

It was only later, under pressure from the then powerful trombonist union, that Mr. Handel was obliged to include some token notes for low brass. Disinclined to tamper with his masterpiece, he cleverly scored the superfluous notes well below the normal range of the instrument. So low, in fact, they are beyond the range of human hearing, audible only to a rare species of African primate known as the bassoon. Concert-going bassoons are also rare, but just to be on the safe side, Handel added only four notes, these to be sounded during the Hallelujah chorus, when they’d be safely buried beneath the fortissimo blasts of a dozen trumpets, a six hundred voice chorus, and, of course, angels.

Two hundred years later I found myself sitting in an orchestra pit, trombone in hand, turning page after page of musical score. It was the thirty-second community performance of The Messiah, a Christmas tradition in our little Utah town. Beside me sat my friend Frank, heavy-set trombonist of the sturm und drang school, for whom anything less than the 1812 Overture was mere background music. Frank’s lips moved silently as he counted his way through a 197-bar rest, while on the stage overhead matronly soprano Flora Robinson warbled her way through a vocal solo, her voice ranging over a vast aria in search of the pitch.

Frank arrived at one ninety-seven, and I turned the page. A four-thousand bar rest stretched before our eyes like a flat electroencephalogram.

“How beau-ti-ful are the feet of them that preach the gos-pel…” wailed Mrs. Robinson.

“Why should we bother to count these rests?” Frank grumbled. “We only get four notes in this lousy oratorio anyway”

“And why should we even blow the four notes?” chimed in Baritone Bob. “There are no bassoons in the audience.”

“My horn is getting cold,” said Frank. “I’ve got to warm it up.” Frank put the mouthpiece to his lips, extended his slide as far as it could go, and blew his four notes. We saw his cheeks billow out but heard nothing.

We rested some more. Baritone Bob settled into his favorite pastime, forming bits of sheet music into tiny paper missiles, then launching them with a rubber band into the cavernous bell of the sousaphone. Plink! Plink!

Meantime, Frank and I gazed into the blackness where the audience sat, their presence betrayed only by the glimmer of stage lights reflected off harlequin-framed eyeglasses, and the sporadic coughing that spread like the black plague from front row to the balcony and back again. It was emphysema night at the civic auditorium.

“Their sound is gone out in-to all lands,” the soprano droned on. “Their sound is gone out…is gone out…”

“I’m bored,” said Frank. “You count for awhile.” Frank slumped forward, his left ear resting against the mouthpiece of his instrument. It was at that moment that he made a most exciting discovery. Absorbing sound waves like a parabolic antenna, his trombone was an excellent amplifier. The normally silent foot tapping of the woodwind section, when channeled through his trombone, sounded like a stampede of rogue elephants.

Keeping his ear to the mouthpiece, Frank then turned his horn in the direction of the audience. The sound of distant coughing beat against his eardrums with explosive force. Whispers from the balcony were clearly audible.

“Psst,” he whispered. “Put your horn to your ear. You can hear everything. You can hear like a bassoon.”

I gave it a try. Wow! I was hearing more voices than a schizophrenic. Using my trombone like a radio telescope, I scanned the back rows. The murmurings of distant parents came through with startling clarity.

“Is that your boy?” I heard a female voice from the darkness.

“Which one?” came another.

“The one with the trombone in his ear.”

Word of our discovery quickly spread through the trombone section and beyond, to the baritones and French horns and finally to where Gusty Gustavson, the human spittoon, sat encircled in his sousaphone. Gusty put a tentative ear to the mouthpiece of his enormous instrument. Instantly his head shot back.

“Angels!” the word came back. “Gusty says he hears angels!”

“And He shall reign for e-ver and e-ver…” boomed the chorus. The Messiah was moving toward its magnificent climax.

The conductor stirred the violins into a frenzy, cued the trumpets, stretched vocal cords as if by hand. Then, turning the page to see the impending union mandated trombone notes, he turned, and with a dramatic flourish, jabbed his baton in our direction.

Nothing happened. The conductor swung back to the choir, then paused and turned again, perplexed, to see the entire low brass section, ears to mouthpieces, brass bells waving like buttercups in a breeze.

“Alle-lu-jah!”

The concert ended on a strained note. As far as I know, it was the first time anyone had ever attempted to perform Handel’s oratoio by ear. The following Christmas, it was performed a capella.

-Richard Menzies