December 16, 2008
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Ma Nishtana: on Handel’s Messiah

Over the weekend we attended a performance of Handel’s Messiah by a the Philharmonic Society of Arlington, a neighborhood orchestra and chorus. They did a nice job; it’s been a while since I saw a Messiah performance with full guns rather than historical instruments.

One surprising moment was the Hallelujah chorus, in which the audience usually stands. No one stood. No one flinched. This invites speculation: what makes this performance different from others? I can contrive several theories:

  1. The audience didn’t get the memo. This is a neighborhood affair, people were there to see their friends and family make music, and the don’t go to a lot of conferences.
  2. This is Arlington. Specifically, the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, which was originally just The Meetinghouse. On 19 April 1775, the aftermath of the battle of Concord and Lexington was fought right on the doorstep; four of the old men who stayed behind that morning and improvised an ambush to harass the British retreat are out back in the churchyard. Special case: here we don’t stand for the King.
  3. This is a church. I haven’t been to a Messiah at a church before. Does one not stand in church?
  4. This is a Unitarian church. Do Unitarians not stand for the King? Or for King George II? Friends wouldn't, but you wouldn't perform Messiah in a Quaker meetinghouse, either. But the roots of this church lie with Channing and Parker and Emerson; it’s not an impossible theory.
  5. This is Boston. I think we stood in an open sing at Harvard, but I can’t be sure. I’m pretty sure the audience stood at a Handel & Haydn performance at Symphony Hall. But perhaps Bostonians don’t stand for the King, or at least not for George III’s father. Grievances last long around here; I once heard a folk concert interrupted by a gentleman who was bitterly insulted by a ballad critical of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and who delivered a strong protest against the Hanoverian Usurpation before being invited to take his leave. Messiah was composed in 1741, just four years before Charles Stuart’s landing.

You can probably think of more theories. Perhaps you know the correct theory. I wouldn’t mind knowing.

My point here is technical: when he observed behavior of a system departs from the expected or specified behavior, it’s easy to contrive plausible theories. A skilled debugger can often hit on the correct theory. But, in practice, the test of the theory is often whether it provides a solution, and if it doesn’t, you’d better be ready with a fresh theory.