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An economic companion to the Messiah
1. sinfonia (overture)

Christmas is all about taxes. Or at least that is what is in the passage in Luke that is invariably read out at Christmas services: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” I normally forget the tax part of Christmas, and then I remember and feel inexplicably comforted/chastened by it. Although perhaps not so inexplicably comforted/chastened: I suspect that nearly everyone whose income is mostly 1099 (miscellaneous income, taxes not withheld) rather than W-2 (regular income, taxes usually withheld) knows of the gas-lighting of the self that comes to its cognitively dissonant head at Christmas—near the end of the tax year—and then at Easter—also known as around Tax Day—when there is a spike in the difficulty of pretending that whatever money you may have in the bank is, in fact, money in the bank. So Christmas and Easter are, for many, times for certain kinds of anxieties and also times, as it goes, for the rare church visit and, not unrelatedly, for the music of Handel, in particular Handel’s Messiah, because that’s when the piece tends to get put on, at Christmas and at Easter.

2. accompagnato

George Frideric Handel was born in 1685 in Halle, Germany, to a family that forbade him to play instruments. In 1738, a statue of him was put up in Vauxhall Gardens, in London, his adopted city, where almost all his works premiered. This was not long after theater manager Benjamin Victor wrote to violinist Matthew Dubourg: “It is the confirmed opinion that this winter will compleat your friend Handel’s destruction, as far as loss of money can destroy him.” His operas were no longer doing well. He had more than twice as many works in print as any of his contemporaries, but he received no royalties on his music. In 1737 he had a stroke. He was also said to suffer the “Persecution of those little Vermin, who, taking Advantage of their displeasure, pull down even his Bills as fast as he has them pasted up, and use a thousand other little Arts to injure and distress him.” Following his mostly failed 1740–41 musical season, he told friends that his plans for the next season were to do the very uncharacteristic thing of nothing at all.

3. air

Handel put on his Messiah in Dublin in 1742. Premiering something in Dublin in 1742 was sort of like premiering something in modern-day Baltimore.

4. chorus

You know Handel’s Messiah. It’s that eighteenth-century oratorio that even the extremely musically limited like me know—or at least we know the Hallelujah chorus, at the very end of part two. What we don’t hear, now that the song is wildly famous, is much about the piece’s accidentally aptly humble origin story. The Messiah was, according to Handel biographer Christopher Hogwood, “an offbeat venture, unsure in its rewards and probably unrepeatable.”

5. accompagnato

I perused the birth story of the Messiah in the library. It is an odd little piece; unlike the operas that made Handel famous, it has no plot, and although it is titled Messiah, there are no quotations from the man himself. The libretto is a collage of phrases adapted from the Old and New Testaments. It proceeds from Prophecy to Nativity to Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension, but it is not a drama of sermons, donkey rides, or encounters at the Temple. No unusual instrumentation or extraordinary voices are required. In that sense, the music is simple.

6. air

The Palestrina boys’ choir of St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral raised €10,000 for the church with its 2011 performance of Handel’s Messiah, a speaker at the midnight mass at St. Mary’s announced. But Christmas is, as the speaker said, not just our most marketable holiday.

And the Messiah is not just for holiday concerts: when Silvio Berlusconi finally resigned as Italian prime minister, a group gathered outside the Palazzo del Quirinale in Rome and sang the Hallelujah chorus.

7. chorus

The 1742 Dublin premiere, put on in a new music hall, was a big success! In London, a year later, the story was not the same. A letter was published in The Universal Spectator just before the Messiah’s London debut: “An Oratorio either is an Act of Religion, or it is not; if it is, I ask if the Playhouse is a fit Temple to perform it in or a Company of Players fit Ministers of God’s Word.” Handel had already taken the word “Messiah” out of the title of the piece, likely in anticipation of just such a response, though he still advertised it as a “Sacred Oratorio,” so he merely mitigated rather than solved the problem, and, by the by, annoyed the librettist, Charles Jennens, even more than he already had. Jennens wrote of the London performance to a friend: “Messiah was perform’d last night, & will be again to morrow, notwithstanding the clamour rais’d against it, which has only occasion’d it’s being advertis’d without its Name; a Farce which gives me as much offence as any thing relating to the performance can give the Brs & other squeamish People.”

It has been noted that it was the early Methodists, a group of solidly middle-class Londoners, who both championed the demotic form that was the oratorio and led the initial opposition to the Messiah. The “Brs” in Jennens’s letter probably stands for “Brothers.”

8. recitative

I had been told by someone, who admitted he was not sure about it, that Handel, in German, means “trade.” I asked a translator of German whether this was the case. She said that Handel does mean “trade.” But Handel the composer is, in German, actually Händel, which is the plural of “trade,” in the sense of “transactions,” but that 1) she almost never hears Händel used in speech—she thinks it is archaic—and 2) when it is used, it means “quarrels.” The last time she saw it used to mean “trade,” she said, was in Schlegel’s translation of the first scene of Romeo and Juliet. But she further added that I should keep in mind that she doesn’t get out much.

9. air & chorus

Charles Jennens was known both for his opulent taste and for his religious devotion. His libretto is so densely allusive as to be nearly opaque. The music scholar Richard Luckett, one of Jennens’s more generous readers, describes the text by saying that it “disdains narrative and from its first words commands attention because of what it does not explain.”

Handel’s original score is crowded with inkblots and scratch-outs and has a few missing bits; in his drafts, one finds his reworkings of melodies, the address of a banker, and a few notes about the tune of a song he overheard in the street, sung by a “poor Irish boy.”

10. accompagnato

Handel wasn’t that into opera when he settled in England in 1712; he even avoided writing operas for five years. The nobility were really into opera. They were willing to fund a company that would put on operas. After five years of not being into operas, Handel got hired by the Royal Academy of Music and got into operas—genuinely really into them! He wrote more than forty. But the Messiah isn’t an opera; it’s an oratorio. After it, Handel wrote no more operas.

11. air

The idea of a recitative in music is, basically, that the singing follows the rhythms of ordinary speech; in a recitative, musical accompaniment is kept very simple.

An air is more or less the inverse of a recitative; it is like what we traditionally think of as song: the music dominates and directs, and the words are subservient.

An accompagnato is somewhere in between a recitative and an air.

12. chorus

“I cannot sufficiently express the kind treatment I receive here, but the Politeness of this generous Nation cannot be unknown to You, so I let you judge of the satisfaction I enjoy, passing my time with Honnour, profit, and pleasure.” This is from Handel’s letter to Jennens, who was going to be angry that their piece was premiering in Dublin.

Following the performance, the Dublin Journal wrote that the Messiah “was allowed by the greatest Judges to be the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard,” and later said of it, “Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the adoring crouded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.”

Was Jennens pleased?

13. pifa

One of the more common just-so stories told about the decline in England of Italian opera—which is what Handel had been making his living from—concerns the enormous success in 1728 of The Beggar’s Opera. The Beggar’s Opera was in English instead of Italian. The characters were not aristocrats, as in the Italian operas, but rather the lower and criminal classes. (The Beggar’s Opera is what Bertolt Brecht based his Threepenny Opera on.) The Beggar’s Opera was funny. And it made fun of Italian operas. After The Beggar’s Opera, Italian operas fared poorly.

The original idea for The Beggar’s Opera supposedly came from the Irishman and eventual dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Jonathan Swift, who in 1716 asked his friend Alexander Pope, “What think you of a Newgate pastoral among the thieves and whores there?” Pope and Swift were members of the Scriblerus Club, a group devoted mainly to satire; John Gay, also a member, wrote The Beggar’s Opera.

14a. recitative

Proceeds from the first Messiah concert went to three charities that benefited the ill and people in debtors’ prison. The funds raised are said to have led to the release of 142 debtors.

14b. accompagnato

Dream sequence to be tolerated: I find myself thinking that the third season of Louie may now be available for streaming on Netflix. I go to the Netflix site, where there is footage of a young Liza Minnelli in a Sally Field Flying Nun sort of outfit. She is the star of a video tutorial about how to identify what material is appropriate and what is pornography. Then she is on a cruise ship and she starts to sing, something about how men get on boats and know what is what, how they make breakthroughs in their work and they close business deals because they know that brotherly love is business love. Brotherly love is business love—they don’t get confused. Then suddenly Liza is Nina Simone. She is talking about Africa. She has been receiving hate mail, packages of ashes and ships. Her job is heavy, it is not light, is what she keeps saying.

15. recitative

By the time Handel came to Dublin, Jonathan Swift, though still dean of St. Patrick’s, was said to be losing his mind. Swift seems to have agreed to allow singers from his church’s chorus to perform with Handel. Then he didn’t. He wrote: “And whereas it hath been reported that I gave licence to certain vicars to assist at a club of fiddlers in Fishamble Street, I do hereby declare that I remember no such licence to have ever been signed or sealed by me; and that if ever such pretended licence should be produced, I do hereby annul and vacate the said licence; intreating my sub-Dean and Chapter to punish such vicars as shall ever appear there, as songsters, fiddlers, pipers, trumpeters, drummers, drum-majors, or in any sonal quality, according to the flagitious aggravations of their respective disobedience, rebellion, perfidy and ingratitude.”

It seems that Swift later went ahead and allowed his choristers to perform the Messiah. There were also singers from the choir of Christ Church Cathedral, a Catholic church. St. Patrick’s was a Protestant church.

16. accompagnato

In 1725, Jonathan Swift estimated that a third of the money spent on rent in Ireland was sent to London. In 1742, after nine months on the “Hibernian shore,” Handel stopped by to see Swift. On hearing of the musician’s arrival, Swift said, “Oh! A German and a Genius! A prodigy! Admit him.” This is said to have been Swift’s last sane utterance. He died three years later.

17. chorus

The Messiah was composed in just twenty-four days! Some feel this is related to the work having been divinely inspired, like that of the blind Milton, who would awaken from dreams and dictate long sections of Paradise Lost to his daughters. There are myths of Handel’s servants taking away untouched meals and of Handel saying, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.” Members of the divine-inspiration camp note that Handel signed his score “S.D.G.”: Soli Deo gloria. Others point out that Handel often worked quickly.

18. air

The Messiah was composed in just twenty-four days! This led Jennens to write of Handel to a friend: “His Messiah has disappointed me, being set in great hast, tho’ he said he would be a year about it, & make it the best of all his Compositions. I shall put no more Sacred Words into his hands, to be thus abus’d.”

19. recitative

In the library I found what Jennens’s friend wrote back: “I am sorry to hear yr. friend Handel is such a jew.”

20. air (or duet)

Jennens responded to the response with, “You do him too much Honour to call him a Jew! a Jew would have paid more respect to the Prophets.”

21. chorus

Handel, just a few days after he completed the Messiah, was already at work on a new oratorio, Samson.

22. chorus

The first of several Christmas concerts I attended last year was a performance of the Messiah at Trinity Wall Street church. A few days later, Occupy Wall Street protesters attempted to move into a space owned by the church. An Episcopal bishop, George Packard, was the first to climb over the fence and occupy the lot. Protesters were almost immediately removed by the police. The church pointed out that it had provided a space for Occupy Wall Street protesters where they could hold meetings, use Wi-Fi, and take breaks from the cold, that it was able to offer its support in those ways.

23. air

A couple weeks later, I went to three Christmas services in Dublin—one at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, another at St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, and the third at Christ Church Cathedral, near Dame Street, the site of Occupy Dame Street. Each of the services included selections from the Messiah.

24. chorus

I was alone in Dublin. When you’re alone, people talk to you. At the Christmas Eve afternoon concert at St. Patrick’s, I sat next to a woman named Colette. Colette said that later she would be singing in a midnight mass—she would be performing some Handel—out at Sacred Heart Church in Donnybrook. Her church is the last church left in Dublin that does midnight mass at midnight, she explained. Most churches find that at midnight there are too many drunks wandering in and out, so they do midnight mass earlier. You have probably heard of Donnybrook, she said to me, because you have probably heard of the Donnybrook Fair. “Donnybrook” means—she turned to her husband and asked, What would you say “Donnybrook” means? He said the term now means something like “riotous behavior.” The fair used to have a lot of drinking and gambling, a lot of three-card monte, Colette said. But then in 1859 they built a church there, my church; they put it there to try to take the place of the troublesome fair. But what was the fair originally for? I asked Colette. Colette’s husband said that what they did there was get men drunk and then sign them up for the army.

25. chorus

At Christmastime, beggars in Dublin lie prostrate on the ground, hiding their faces and holding out their hats. If you’ve been thinking about Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, you really do think of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum’s opening song: “Sell out your brother, you wretch! Barter away your wife!” There are a lot of beggars in Dublin. (Jonathan Swift proposed that beggars should wear badges; he also noted that England sent over beggars “gratis, and duty free.”) I was told by one person that most of the beggars in Dublin are Turks. Others said to me, No, they are tinkers, or maybe Romanians, but not Turks, because Turks never beg. On Christmas Day, when I go for a long walk, hoping to find something to eat, the only places open besides a handful of hotels are kebab shops. One’s part of a chain called Abrakebabra.

26. chorus

When you’re alone, people take you in. A Canadian family staying at my bed-and-breakfast invited me to eat Christmas dinner with them at the Clarence Hotel, which is owned by a member of one of Ireland’s oldest and most esteemed families—that is to say, the Clarence is owned by Bono. Christmas dinner was set at thirty-five euros there, which was considerably less than other places in town were charging. The waitstaff working Christmas Day were Poles and Chileans. The son of the welcoming Canadian family was in his mid-twenties and had recently moved back home, he said. Because he is trying to make it in comedy, his mother said. He admires Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. His best stand-up bit so far, he and his father agreed, was about the Tamil immigrants who work as kitchen staff in Canada. He has worked in restaurants a lot—his mother is a caterer—and that is how he has come to know so many Tamils. The bit is about a Tamil former national karate champion who works in the kitchen of the comedy club; it’s very hard to retell jokes, but I remember it being funny and referring to Sri Lanka’s deadliest fighter and, maybe, nachos. We had a good time at dinner, and at the end we all paid our portion of the check.

27. accompagnato

Over the Christmas holiday, I had a dream that my long-dead dad was calling me from an Italian police station where he had been taken because he entered the wrong expiration date for an American Express card purchase—could I help him?

28. chorus

In the Circe chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom hallucinates a mass with 600 voices singing the Hallelujah chorus, as Bloom himself becomes “mute, shrunken, carbonised.”

29. accompagnato

For the first performance of the Messiah, ladies were asked to kindly not wear their hoopskirts, so that there would be room for as many attendees as possible, it being a charity concert, and it being desirable that as many people as possible be able to attend. This anecdote was told to me first by a taxi driver, then by an innkeeper, and later by the wife of a very, very wealthy man. It would seem that the Irish are today still very educated about the details of Handel’s Messiah first being put on in Dublin.

30. arioso

About half the magnificent Georgian buildings on historic Fitzwilliam Square had a to let sign in front of them.

31. accompagnato

From 1803 to 1972, the Bank of Ireland had its headquarters in the building that was built for and previously housed the Parliament of Ireland. In March 2011, the Bank of Ireland was found to be in need of a €5.2 billion bailout. Much of its debt was a result of bad loans. The former parliament building, down the way along Dame Street from St. Patrick’s and Christ Church Cathedrals, is still a Bank of Ireland, although now it is just a branch office and no longer the headquarters. I received a long and informative lecture about the Bank of Ireland from the same taxi driver who told me about the Hoopskirt Request of Handel’s time, and who also told me that his house was worth 500K in 2007 but now is probably worth only 240K, not that he was ever thinking of selling it, but that it was true, and sad, that the young people were leaving Ireland because they couldn’t find work, that the young people were going to Australia.

32. air

I went to the 9:30 p.m. midnight mass at St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral. Outside there were protesters with signs about the Satanic World Federation of Pedophilia. The sermon was about how Jesus was a real historical figure—a real man in a real time. The time of Caesar Augustus, who issued a census so that he could tax the land. The speaker said that he wanted to welcome everyone, of course, but that he especially wanted to welcome those who have had a relationship with the Church that has been a painful and hurtful one. The speaker also made a special announcement about Please do not dip the wafer into the wine because the same cup is used by those who suffer from celiac disease. After the service, the priest exited the church slowly, greeting the congregation as a bride might.

33. chorus

Some of us seem to have a sense of fear and isolation that precedes any reason for such a feeling. Christmas is a time for the exacerbation of such predispositions. My cheerful and loved nine-year-old niece writes for her biographical description at school: I am a girl who is afraid of bee stings and of short lives. When I grow up I want to be a writer and to learn how to say no to people.

34. recitative

On Christmas Eve, I read in an Irish newspaper about the closing of a nursing home and about strikers in Cork being offered €1,500 to go home for Christmas rather than continue their sit-in; they declined the offer.

In Dublin, average annual disposable income—income left once tax has been deducted—was reported to be €24,316. Incomes throughout the country fell between 2008 and 2009 but remain higher than they were in 2000, when the national average was €13,772.

35. chorus

I’m not a Christian, but every year of my childhood in Oklahoma I was taken in by another family for Christmas. Other people’s grandmothers knit me poodle-shaped soap covers. I had my own stocking. I always looked forward to Christmas. Many of those childhood Christmases I spent in the home of a family of part Cherokee descent, who gave me as many presents as they gave their own daughter, which was a lot; I understand now that they were not wealthy people. One year I received a beautiful backpack of Fievel Mousekewitz, the protagonist of the animated movie An American Tail; the backpack was itself Fievel wearing his own backpack. The mother in that household was a high school English teacher who was the first person to introduce me to the works of Roald Dahl and Sylvia Plath; she once gave me a T-shirt that said custer had it coming; retired now, she teaches courses at the DMV.

36. air

Colette had gotten a ticket to the concert at St. Patrick’s because her sister is a bell ringer there. There was a time, she said, when the bishop wouldn’t have let a Catholic girl ring the bells at St. Patrick’s—but now, she observed, people are more open-minded.

37. chorus

After the concert, I went to see the bell-ringing! I followed a narrow staircase in the twelfth-century church up to the bell tower, where I found bell ringers in the round, about a dozen of them, fat and thin and short and tall. Each had a rope, though some of the ropes were thin and some were fat and some hung down longer than others. The ropes were connected to the unseen bells, at least one of which weighs more than 2,000 pounds. Some of the bell ringers were standing on risers to reach their ropes. They moved in a not quite identifiable pattern, to the conducting of it was not quite clear whom, moving up and down as they pulled their ropes, looking like keys on a player piano.

38. duet & chorus

(There’s a ringing at the door of my apartment in New York. I’m not expecting anyone. Who could it be? It’s a debt collector, trying to talk to the woman who lived in this apartment three years ago, who once owned this apartment, but not anymore. She hasn’t been here for years, I say. Okay, thank you, the woman who was ringing says.)

39. chorus

When I’m listening to music—especially Handel or anything that comes up on Pandora if you start with Handel—everything seems to be part of the pattern of a grand and benign mystery. It’s very comforting. I don’t listen to music very often.

40. air

One evening when I Pandora Messiah, I eventually find myself listening to “O Superman” by Laurie Anderson, and the world feels like a grand and benign mystery, connected with wires or, maybe, strings.

41. chorus

After the midnight mass at St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, I found I had nowhere to go and jet lag to keep me awake, and the only place I could find open was the bar at the Shelbourne Hotel, located on St. Stephen’s Green and recently renovated by Marriott International. An older gentleman approached me and invited me to dine with him and his three friends. I call him a gentleman in part because he said to me straight off that he owns three apartments in Dubai, in the Jumeirah Beach neighborhood. Although they have lost 75 percent of their value, he said, he is happy to have them anyway. He also owns several bars named Pig ’n’ Whistle in New York City, he said. And he has recently begun investing in horses. I actually did go ahead and join them. They knew a lot about Handel. We enjoyed ourselves! They paid for my meal.

42. recitative

The Shelbourne Hotel was an important site in the Easter Rising of 1916. According to official hotel lore, the hotel owners remained “loyal to the Crown,” but not all the staff did. Also according to the official lore:

It emerged later that one hotel porter made regular forays up to the rooftop and signalled the movement of troops within the hotel to the rebel forces across the Green. Yet despite all the disturbances, the hotel management and staff were able to carry on almost as normal.

43. air

“On Easter Monday,” continued the hotel history as written by the hotel,

when fighting broke out on the Green, afternoon tea was transferred from the Drawing Room to the Writing and Reading Room at the rear of the hotel for safety (this room is now the Horseshoe Bar). On Tuesday afternoon, forty soldiers were sent to garrison the hotel, making it a legitimate target for the rebels across the Green. The Shelbourne came under regular fire for the remainder of the week. The windows were sandbagged and shuttered; the great entrance door was barricaded. A skeleton staff operated the hotel’s services and titled guests acted as waiters. By Wednesday, the hotel opened its doors to receive the injured, irrespective of the side on which side [sic] they fought. The young rebels—who over the past days fired gunshots at the hotel—were now its guests, having their wounds treated by women whose very existence they threatened.

During the Civil War, The Shelbourne was home to the new army of Ireland. On January 24th, 1922, the first meeting of the constitution committee was held in the hotel.

44. chorus

Handel is said to have died a wealthy and peaceful man.

45. air

The Bach and Handel Chorale is located in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. They put on Christmas concerts and Easter concerts and a handful of other concerts. The town of Jim Thorpe is in Carbon County. Most of its residents are of Irish descent—many are descended from members of the nineteenth-century secret society of mostly Irish coal miners known as the Molly Maguires. Jim Thorpe, the Olympic gold medalist who played professional football, professional baseball, and professional basketball, is not from the area. He was born in 1888 on a Sac and Fox reservation near Prague, Oklahoma. After his athletic career ended, he worked as a film extra, a doorman, and a construction worker. He died a very poor man. Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, came to be named Jim Thorpe in 1953. Before then it was two towns: Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk. But the towns were looking to merge and rebrand. Oklahoma had declined to set up a monument in honor of Jim Thorpe, so Jim Thorpe’s widow spoke with the town councils of East Mauch Chunk and Mauch Chunk; they paid her a sum of money for the use of her late husband’s name. Jim Thorpe is, today, a beautiful tourist town, in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains. It used to be known as the honeymoon capital of the world. Its streets are lined with poplar trees. It has a population of around 4,000.

46. chorus

A local, Randall Douglas Perry, is the founder, musical director, and conductor of the Bach and Handel Chorale. Perry’s father and grandfather worked for the railroad. Perry grew up playing ragtime piano; he loves Handel, though, he says, he feels a closer connection to Bach. He says the orchestra is the biggest expense for the chorale, so it is sometimes easier to put on Handel’s pieces, which often do not call for as much accompaniment, and he appreciates that. “This is a valley with no industry,” he says. “I do sometimes wish we could have a bigger endowment, but you can’t get blood from a stone. Each of the local banks gives us a thousand dollars. Because Carbon County is cut off, we don’t have access to some of the grants available in Lehigh or Montgomery County.” The chorale’s performances are beloved. The performers say they are like a family, seeing one another through lost jobs and deaths. One of the pieces they perform alongside the Messiah in their Easter concert is “Aubrey,” a song by the Oklahoma-born David Gates, of the band Bread. “Aubrey,” a hit when it came out in 1972, was purportedly inspired by Audrey Hepburn’s performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Another piece in the concert is by Perry himself.

47. accompagnato

There’s a line outside the church half an hour before seating for the Bach and Handel Chorale Easter concert. The concert has a suggested donation of ten dollars.

48. air

Overheard: someone in a black bow tie and jacket taking a smoke break outside says, I have to remember not to sing Baroque when I’m in church, and not to sing church when I’m supposed to sing Baroque. It doesn’t blend. When I sing church, I open my mouth wide. If you do that with Baroque, it sounds all wrong. Well, I’m going to go ahead and finish this cigarette and then I’ll see you inside.

49. recitative

According to 2010 Census data, the labor force in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, is estimated to be 2,317, with an estimated 226 of those unemployed: a 9.8 percent unemployment rate. Median earnings for workers between 2006 and 2010 were $32,380.

50. duet

I am sitting near an elderly woman I was standing next to in line. She was carrying a tote bag that said buyology. She says that she is not “from here”; she comes from nearby Montgomery County. She adds that, unfortunately, while she was in town, she had time to do some shopping. She has purchased two gifts for the young girl who lives across the street from her. The first gift is one of those toys with a man’s face printed on a piece of cardboard covered with a plastic casing that contains iron filings that can be moved around with an included magnet to depilate and repilate the man’s face—a toy often called a Wooly Willy or a Hair-do Harriet. The other is one of those toys consisting of a covered, cratered grid, within which tiny ball bearings can be arranged into patterns. Both gifts are old-fashioned sorts of toys now made new again. “These were the kinds of toys I had as a kid,” she explains to me. “I didn’t know people made them anymore. And these are even made in America.” The woman adds that she attends lots of things alone and asks me whether I am a “lone wolf” like she is.

51. chorus

What about the music itself?

52. air

The translator who explained the meaning of Händel to me is working on a translation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. There is not only the problem of stepping on the proverbial toes of previous translators but also the ever-fresh question of how to translate just what it is that Gregor Samsa has become. The original German is Ungeziefer. It’s a term found in Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible that means an animal not fit to be sacrificed—something like “vermin.” But not quite. Kafka specifically avoids, she explains, using any word that more straightforwardly means “insect” or “bug.” Translation, another translator once said, is like trying to turn a baby chick into a duckling.

53. chorus

Before the first Dublin performance of the Messiah, Handel revised his “How beautiful are the feet” section. He also dramatically shortened other sections of his Messiah, both to accommodate the local male soloists and to ensure that the concert, held in an uncomfortably overcrowded and woefully secular concert hall, wouldn’t go on for too long. ?

One might say Christmas is about finding accommodation and Easter is about leaving one’s accommodations, though both holidays are stories of the same man.

is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine. Her article Into the Unforeseen appeared in the June 2011 issue.

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