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Multiculturalism and Messiah

The Telegraph reports that in a speech overturning more than three decades of Labour support for multiculturalism, Tony Blair said minority groups in Britian must show "equality of respect" - especially better treatment of women by Muslim men - allegiance to the rule of law and a command of English. "When it comes to our essential values, the belief in democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, equal treatment for all, respect for this country and its shared heritage," Tony Blair said yesterday, "then that is where we come together, it is what gives us what we hold in common; it is what gives us the right to call ourselves British."

This is the season of the year when Handel's Messiah is often performed. Like Holbein, who came to England to "scrape a few angels together", Handel came to earn a living. He accompanied the man who would become Britain's George I to London. Handel lived most of his life in Britain, became a British subject, and wrote the anthem, Zadok the Priest, that has been played at every coronation ceremony since the coronation of George II.

The royal stipend was not large, and Handel worked hard. His servant recalls bringing him food while he worked feverishly on Messiah, only to find the plate untouched when he returned to take it away.

Messiah is immensely popular in the English-speaking world. The first year I ever heard it I was squeezed into an overflow crowd in a cathedral nave. The thrill of jumping to my feet with a thousand others to the Hallelujah chorus at the end of Part II was only exceeded by the thrilling beauty of one line sung by the soprano. In years since I have heard countertenors sing this role, but like Handel I prefer a soprano. On this night, the soprano appeared tense, and gripped a handkerchief, not in Pavarotti's dramatic style, but as if she really might need it to blow her nose.

Messiah's a difficult piece, it seems to me, if you are a soloist because you are a little like a hitter heading up every other inning to the plate to bat. You have to hit your notes when you've been sitting silently for a quarter of an hour or longer in a large hall, feeling perhaps as if you ought to be in bed. She sang beautifully, but I felt worried enough to say a short prayer. Since I didn't know the music, I had no idea what was coming when she stood in Part III, her dress glittering, her throat bare, and the words and the song floated into the air – "I know that my Redeemer liveth." The notes, the words, the voice, so pure, so beautiful, made me feel my heart had stopped with happiness – along with everyone else who was there.

Handel came as a stranger to Britain, created music that is both part of British tradition, and transcends it, and made Britain his. He was a genius, to be sure, but it was much more than genius that he gave, and much simpler. It was love.