A FEW YEARS BACK my brother Bob gave me a soul version of Handel's immortal "Messiah." He seemed to think I was entirely too wrapped up in the classical music thing and needed to get back to my roots. So he laid a recording of Quincy Jones' gospel-tinged "Messiah: A Soulful Celebration" under my Christmas tree. "Check it out," he said.
Now, I don't think of myself as a purist or a snob. I like all kinds of music. But I do feel there are some things that really can't be improved on. Like Otto Klemperer's 1950s-vintage recording of the "Messiah," with Elizabeth Schwartzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. To this day, I prefer it to any of the innumerable contemporary digital versions, including Sir Colin Davis' delightful Toronto Symphony reading with Kathleen Battle and Florence Quivar.
I grew up on the Klemperer version, and my ears tell me it's right even though today's purists think it's old hat because it wasn't done on period instruments and hasn't received the blessing of the authentic-performance-practice taste police. Still, I like its archaic mono sound, the oversized chorus and close-miked soloists, the sheer unabashed romanticism of the thing. I know it's all wrong by today's standards, but so what?
Well, you might ask, if Klemperer is OK even though he doesn't play "Messiah" the way we think Handel would have performed it, what's wrong with Quincy Jones making a gospel version of it? The fact is, when you think about it, there's nothing at all wrong about it. Not a thing.
Oh, I know some people will cry "sacrilege!" I admit that I did, too, at first. The classics of high culture have become icons, unassailable and virtually unalterable.
So when Quincy Jones writes a rap version of Handel's noble aria, "Every Valley Shall Be Exalted," my first impulse is to wince. It seems a gratuitous tampering with perfection. One wants to exclaim: "What's the point?"
Over the years, however, I've come to appreciate this contemporary version of Handel's most famous work. It's grown on me, not so much because it translates an enduring classic into the idiom of the 1990s, but because it forces us to re-examine our relationship to the European classical tradition and the wellsprings of our own native religious song.
Handel, who lived from 1685 to 1759, did not invent the oratorio form, but he brought it to a peak of artistic development that epitomized both the musical and social values of his age.
Critic Paul Henry Lang once observed that the Handelian oratorio, with its mighty choruses and arias and recitatives of the greatest lyrical variety, glorified "the rise of the free people of England" by identifying them with the biblical Hebrew nation and its divinely ordained mission.
"The people of Israel became the prototype of the English nation, the chosen people of God reincarnated in Christendom," Lang wrote. The oratorios' "magnificent Psalms of thanksgiving and marches of victory in imperial baroque splendor proclaimed the grandiose consciousness of England's world-conquering power."
The English public of Handel's day saw reflected in these monumental choral dramas its own triumphant national progress and recognized in the music's humanity and compassion a universal religious expression.
Ironically, Handel, never a pious man in the conventional sense, was astounded by the creative frenzy that drove him to complete the "Messiah" in just 25 days while in a state of trance-like inspiration.
He is alleged to have said after finishing the great "Hallelujah Chorus": "I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself." After the final "Amen" had been written he confided to a physician, "I think God has visited me."
The exaltation with which the "Messiah" was created can be heard on every page of the score. And it is that overwhelming experience -- the exhilaration of a direct, personal encounter with the Godhead -- that is at the core of Quincy Jones' inspired arrangements, too. They work because they hold up a mirror to the same social and musical processes in the contemporary era that Handel's incomparable masterpiece did for the Age of Enlightenment.
Black gospel music is a uniquely American mixture of Negro spirituals, Protestant hymn tunes, jazz, ragtime and the blues. Pioneered by composers like Thomas A. Dorsey during the 1930s, it reflected the vast transformations in African-American life during the inter-war years, as hundreds of thousands of rural Southern blacks abandoned farms for the urban North.
The black church, which followed the migrants north, embraced the new musical style -- albeit grudgingly -- as an expression of the urban dwellers' new social and political consciousness and their aspirations for greater economic opportunity. The joyful sounds of gospel are literally the American Dream set to music.
So if the Handel oratorio was, as Lang suggested, "entirely the product of [the] English social and spiritual environment," little wonder that the most characteristic American adaptation of the work should be in the black gospel idiom. For the American dream was always much more than purely economic aspiration. It is, at bottom, about redemption.
The identification of the African slave in America with the biblical Hebrews held in Egyptian bondage can be traced to the earliest evolution of the black church; what Lang called "the rise of a free people" is a perennial theme of African-American music, both sacred and secular, and thus of all the American popular music that derives from it.
I cite these parallels merely to suggest why Jones' gospel-inspired "Messiah" ought not be dismissed out of hand as artistic "sacrilege" or commercial exploitation. Of course, the validity of such considerations can only be tested in the listening. To my ears, at least, Mr. Jones' star-studded ensemble, which includes Stevie Wonder's "O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion" and Tramaine Hawkins' take on "And He Shall Purify," more than succeed on their own terms.
Still, whether you like it or not ultimately remains a matter of personal taste. Since this is the season for "Messiah" performances of every sort, though, it surely does no harm to pass along brother Bob's good advice: "Check it out."