Oratorio — From the December 2012 issue


An economic companion to the Messiah

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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.

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

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