original title page of the “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel,
The old story goes that upon hearing the “Hallelujah” chorus for the first time in 1743, King George II was so moved that he rose to his feet, in his royal box at the Convent Garden Theater (now the Royal Opera House) in London. He remained standing.
Well, when the king is standing, you don't remain sitting, so long before the end of the piece, the entire audience found itself making its way to its feet, as well. Thus a tradition was begun.
The story has been elaborated upon, denigrated, and outright denied as ever having happened. But the little myth became part of the musical landscape, for Handel's masterpiece.
From that day to this, it's traditional to stand (or not, depending on you feel about Hanoverian Kings) upon hearing the opening notes of the "Hallelujah” chorus.
I only mention that here because Vincent does, in this little “Messiah” inspired vignette.
Rolley crept down the tunnel passageway, trying to trace his way toward the sound he heard coming from... somewhere.
“For unto us, a child is born…”
Voices. Music. Beautiful music. But not like any music he'd ever heard, or was familiar with.
Not scratchy radio sound, (for what radio worked down here?) or inexpert, child singers warbling their way through a tune. But trained voices in different registers, blending as an angelic One. And there was an orchestra, heavy on the strings, negotiating a run of spritely notes.
Andante, Rolley thought, thinking in the music terms Miss Kendrick had been teaching him. Andante means lively. Not slow.
Miss Kendrick was raising an apt pupil. And the maze-like intersections bounced around the sound, giving it an echoey, ephemeral effect.
This wasn't Beethoven. No "Sonatas for Moonlight," here. He wasn't even sure if he heard a piano, anywhere. As a matter of fact, he was sure he didn’t.
This was something else. Something... richer, though Rolley hoped he wasn’t' committing blasphemy against Beethoven, for thinking it.
This was more intricate, more entwined, as what sounded like a hundred violins and at least that many voices all ... entangled with each other, and overlapped, making a beautiful, opulent reverberation.
"For unto us a child is born... unto us a son is given."
It repeated. A little like the “Moonlight Sonata” after all, Rolley thought, understanding the role repetition often played, in music.
It did repeat. And it was getting louder, as he drew closer to its source. Rolley slowed his footsteps as he approached the circular hole that led to the Music Chamber. The shape of the doorway worked as an almost perfect conduit for the heavenly sounds that now drifted into the passageway and swirled around the gangly young boy.
Whatever was happening, it was originating in there, or near it.
Never had Rolley heard such a light, wondrous sound. The orchestral pieces he’d favored were heavy on piano, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. Eli favored piano music as well. It was why he’d kept an old upright in the back of his shop.
But no radio tuned into a dodgy station, no television set turned low in Eli's shop while he worked, no scratchy vinyl record spinning on a last-legs phonograph had ever conveyed such a light, gorgeous sound, to the young boy’s amazed ears. This was live music, a thing Rolley played, but outside his own talent, had rarely “heard,” before. And this was choral. Rolley had had no personal experience with that, at all. He barely spoke, much less sang. And Anthony mostly laughed, sneered, or gave orders.
"…and the governments shall be upon his shoul-ders."
There were breaks in the syllables, points and counterpoints, tonal meldings and blendings of sound, as different voices repeated the line, and passed it around, back and forth between each other, some taking it high, some taking it low.
Rolley's pianist’s fingers drummed on his slender thighs, trying to play a melody that two hands couldn't possibly contain, for all its lush, overlaying intricacy.
"And he shall be called: Wonderful! Counselor! The Mighty God, The ev-er-last-ing Fa-ther, The Prince of Peace..."
What someone was doing with voices and strings, Rolley knew he tried to do when the fingers on one hand played a chord, rather than an individual note. But this seemed a dozen times more complex, more intricate than that.
The piano music Miss Kendrick was teaching him to read told him what to do with his left hand, while the right was doing something else. Melody blended with harmony. That, he understood.
But this seemed like melody blended over melody, with harmonies that underpinned the whole, and tied it all together even as it created it. The different voices were all singing together, yet they varied. The violins were doing much the same.
It was as if someone had laid identically shaped, yet differently patterned bolts of fabric on top of one another, and made it all be “one thing.” And then did it again, for the next note. Rolley could describe it to himself no differently than that.
He stood in front of the circular hole and let the music wash over him, with its subtle, complex glory.
And then realized he wasn't entirely alone, in enjoying it.
Vincent's uncannily still form stood in the middle of what Rolley could only describe as a bare, stone room. Moonlight filtered down through an overhead grate, and the young, lion-faced man had his head tilted to one side, listening.
Barely clear of his teens, Vincent's body had a rangy length, and his shoulders were starting to broaden. The hood of his cape was down, in spite of the December air, so he could hear the captivating music. Light from above shone down like a gentle benediction, bringing the sharp planes of his singular face into bright, moon-painted relief.
And even though he was safe underground, Rolley was aware that he was also exposed, standing as he was. Though crosshatched shadows also crisscrossed his vibrant form, the overhead light was as revealing as it was beautiful. He could be seen.
Vincent’s eyes were half closed. He was enjoying the splendid music. Thoroughly.
Should be in the shadows, Rolley thought, watching his unique friend, as he listened. Should be close to the wall, just in case.
In case someone looked down, as they happened by. In case some tardy concert-goer happened to hurry past, and glance down, inside the grate.
Would they even understand what they lookin' at? Rolley wondered, as the song seemed to begin all over again, repeating parts of itself, yet in a subtly different way.
Rolley had no answer for the question. He wasn't even sure he understood what Vincent was, and he'd had far more time to work that out than a hurried concert-goer ever would have.
As if by some inner awareness, Vincent opened his eyes and looked right at Rolley, lifting a gesturing hand, to signal that he was welcome to come in.
Rolley crept forward through the circular hole, carefully. His thrift store sneakers made no sound, on the smooth, round concrete.
He took in what was no more than an empty chamber, save for Vincent’s lean presence. He made his way over.
"It's Christmas, Rolley," Vincent whispered. "They're playing The Messiah up in the park."
Rolley stood beside his friend. They were both bathed in white moonlight and George Frideric Handel. It was wonderful. The very word they sang, next.
Rolley's street-raised self was unfamiliar with either the word “Messiah” or the type of music he was listening to. But after no more than a few seconds of standing there with his head tilted back, Rolley thought that both must be among the most beautiful things in all the world.
He wanted a voice that could do what those other voices were doing, wanted to trade his piano for a violin, so he could play it. It was a spiritual adoration dressed as a song, and unlike the technically challenging melody/harmony pieces Miss Kendrick had had him practicing. This was softly intricate, even as it was sublime.
He glanced back at Vincent. "They real good," was the only way Rolley's limited vocabulary could describe it, in a whisper. He felt so much more. But it was all he could say. The boy who was learning music’s version of Italian had only so much English, at his command.
"I think so, too," Vincent whispered back, enjoying not only the music, but the chance to share it with someone.
Above, a pair of tardy, booted feet hurried over the steel grate, and Rolley started as he looked back up toward the metal 'ceiling' of the room.
"We should git back," Rolley said, stepping toward the wall.
Vincent shook his head, in gentle disagreement. "No. Sometimes... sometimes I think we have to be defenseless, and exposed, among people we hope will do us no harm," he said, staying right where he was.
“…the Mighty God…”
Rolley stepped back near Vincent, understanding that the center of the room was the acoustically superior position, in the rough-hewn space. The song continued, and the unlikely pair stood silently, hearing the runs and the rises, feeling the sweeping sensation of both musical and religious ecstasy. The sensation Handel had intended his audience to feel, just as he’d felt it, once.
"How he made that?" Rolley asked. For all his amazing musical prowess, "Rolley Parrot" the music student was a player, not a composer. He understood how to reproduce a sound, once he’d heard it. He did not understand symphonic creation.
Vincent inclined his head, gently. Who knew where the magic of creation came from?
"Handel himself said he was divine inspiration. That heaven was revealed to him, that he saw God even, as he wrote it," Vincent answered.
Rolley simply nodded, content that that answer must be the correct one, for surely there were angels singing in the park, right now.
Less than a few seconds later, the sweet, short passage was done. Some in the audience applauded politely, and the notes of the next part of Handel's most well-known masterpiece began.
"They's more?" Rolley asked, astonished that it could be so.
"Much more," Vincent said, pleased. "It's considered one of Handel's most stunning accomplishments. He’d lost all his money, and was in ill health, suicidal even. People were making fun of him.”
Rolley understood that, all too well.
“What happened,” he asked, aware they were talking over the barely-there music.
“Well, that’s when Handel had what he described as a religious experience. It changed his life, and it made him create many more beautiful pieces of music. This oratorio considered his crowning achievement," Vincent said, as the ghostly strains of the Pifa caressed the walls. With no words, it was almost a lullaby.
"Oratory?" Rolley questioned.
"Oratorio. A sacred text, set to music. Words from the Bible tell the story of Christ, in this instance."
An odd question occurred to the small child.
“You believe in God, Vincent?” Rolley did. His grandma had taught him to, back before she died. But he knew there were those who didn’t. Anthony, for instance. And then there was Eli, whose Hebrew God had a different flavor. Eli didn’t celebrate Christmas. Rolley knew that much.
Rolley looked, waiting for the answer, knowing that though he loved Anthony, he didn’t entirely trust him to say the truth. With Vincent, it was the just the opposite.
Vincent’s reply was a softly considered one: “Handel did. Then so do I, every time I hear Handel,” Vincent answered, giving one of his infrequent smiles. Rolley returned it with a rare smile of his own.
“Or read Shakespeare. Or hear you, playing,” Vincent added.
Rolley warmed at the deft praise, and his smile continued, as he stood still and simply listened. It was beautiful. And Rolley felt close to the distant heaven Handel had described, even though he was standing in a spot that, beneath the ground, would be considered closer to Hell than to Heaven, by most of the people above them.
The young musician knew anybody who thought that would be wrong. That though the tunnels weren't perfect, they were the closest thing to heaven that he knew.
Vincent looked down at the young prodigy, his youthful, dark face limned by a frothy moon. Vincent extended his cloak so that it sheltered the slender boy from the winter cold.
Rolley stepped closer to Vincent’s larger body, enjoying his warmth as he tugged the heavy cape around his narrow shoulders. He liked the dark, heavy fabric, and the comforting presence he sensed in the unique being near him.
Over his head, The Pifa gave way to “There were shepherds abiding in the field,” and then an ethereal soprano voice sang “And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them.” Rolley was enchanted.
"There is much more to come. We can sit, if you like," Vincent said, thinking perhaps Rolley had been correct, after all. The young boy's legs were slender by nature, and sitting on a piano bench for hours on end had hardly strengthened them. Sitting down and leaning against the wall might be the thing to do.
"Though of course, when the "Hallelujah" chorus comes, we must stand. It's tradition. Even a king did that, once," Vincent informed his young companion.
“A king stood up?” he asked.
“Right as the song begins. The story says he was so moved, he couldn’t remain sitting. So that meant the rest of the audience had to stand, as well.”
Rolley grinned hugely at the information, and remained looking up, as the music continued to surround his slight form. Gorgeous, choral voices engulfed the two of them. Angels were singing to shepherds. Singing to them, as well.
Vincent beheld the sheer… wonder on Rolley’s face. He was transported. As transported as Vincent knew he had been, the first time he'd heard it. Vincent recognized the rapture in Rolley's expression, and knew the young savant didn't want to give up the center of the room for the wall, or even give up standing for sitting. Not now.
Standing in the middle of the room was the closest either of them could be to the perfection of the sound. There was no other way to say it, but that. Vincent knew that the quality shifted only slightly, closer to the wall, but his keen hearing could discern it.
So, it seemed, could Rolley’s.
Rolley’s small, dark hand reached for Vincent's furred one, beneath the cape. Vincent felt the boy’s long, slender fingers slip into his steady palm, asking for both his continued company, and his strength, his support.
"We kin stand," Rolley said, shifting his weight a little, as he continued to do so.
"You'll tell me if you get tired?" Vincent asked. There was a good way to go in the oratorio, if they didn't skip any of it, or even if they did pick and choose, some.
Rolley shook his head in the negative. "We stand," he repeated, sending Vincent's hand the pressure of a soft squeeze. "We stand."
Vincent dropped his head a moment, hearing the determination in the gifted child's voice.
Yes, Rolley. Yes. We do. We stand, he thought, mentally imbuing the last two words with a wealth of meaning. He looked back up at the moon-pierced grate. Rolley did, too.
"How long to the 'Hallelujah' thing?" Rolley whispered, wanting to hear the bit of music that had been so magnificent, a monarch had been brought to his feet - and taken the rest of the audience with him, for generations.
Vincent smiled at the impatience of youth. "We have a while. You wouldn't want to miss the rest of the journey. The “Hallelujah” chorus is the most famous part of the oratorio. But it's not necessarily the only beautiful part."
“Glory to God in the highest!” the unseen voices proclaimed.
Rolley could only agree with that, and he nodded, as the cold December night continued to sweep down from above. The chill air nipped at his upturned nose, while music that had warmed the hearts of centuries of listeners continued to do so.
Rolley felt Vincent shift his weight in the soft sand of the music chamber, as well. He'd been standing longer than Rolley had. How much longer, Rolley had no idea.
"You stay with me? You stand?" Rolley dared to ask, hating to keep interrupting the music.
Vincent’s low, sure voice flowed over the boy.
"Yes, Rolley, yes. I will stand with you. All night long, if you want me to." He dropped his head low, so that the blonde hair was a golden curtain, diffusing sliver moonlight. He planted an impulsive, reassuring kiss on Rolley's smooth forehead.
Vincent gave Rolley's young hand an answering squeeze, as well. They were both poor, both brilliant in different ways, and both ... separated from the well-heeled audience above them, even as they were a secret part of it. Rolley, with his patchwork clothes, cropped hair, and dark skin had no more ability to walk into their wealthy midst than Vincent did, and they both knew it.
Yet here they both were, standing just under the front row, taking glory into their ears. Loving it. Discovering and rediscovering it. Accepting it as a special gift. Like talent, or friendship... or love.
"We stand," Vincent replied, knowing that they would.
One of the last spoken biblical quotations from The Messiah came to him.
“’For if God be for us, who can be against us?’” he asked rhetorically, quoting one of the more famous lines of Romans - and of the heavenly masterwork - in the same breath.
Rolley liked the thought of that. He knew that Vincent did, too.
“…Glory to God in the highest…and peace on earth…goodwill towards men!”
Rolley, content to remain standing with his amazing friend, silently agreed.
where you are when the
urge to remain standing overcomes you, I wish you love.
~ “For Unto Us a Child is Born”
Illustration supplied by the author