As Christmas approaches, the churches and concert halls of New York are filled with various renderings of Handel’s Messiah. But one Messiah, perhaps the most iconic of all, which filled the air last year and each year for the forty-five years before it, has gone.
David Randolph conducted his St. Cecilia Chorus’s version of the Messiah at Carnegie Hall every year since 1965. His own birthday was Christmas Eve, and last December 24, as he celebrated his ninety-fifth, he was as full of physical and creative energy as ever. He would bound to the podium with the spring of someone a quarter his age, take a bow, and then turn to the audience, speaking in his deep, melodious baritone, to introduce the singers, players, and their instruments, and the main themes of the Messiah. His passion for the every aspect of the music was evident. He often gave historical glosses on a particular instrument or musical theme, and he never omitted to say that Handel drew much of his most beloved “religious” music from the bawdy Italian love songs of his time. There was no such thing as “religious” music, Randolph felt, any more than there was “military” music or “love” music; there was only music put to different uses, in different contexts. This was a point which he brought out with great eloquence in his beautiful book, This Is Music: A Guide to the Pleasure of Listening, and he would often mention it before a performance of his annual Christmas Oratorio or the great Passions he conducted at Easter. He would mention it, too, when conducting his favorite Requiem Masses by Brahms, Verdi, or Berlioz—all of whom, he would remind the audience, were atheists (as he himself was). The religious imagination, he felt, was a most precious part of the human spirit, but he was convinced that it did not require particular religious beliefs, or indeed any religious belief. (Jonathan Miller, in directing his wonderful Matthew Passion at BAM, often makes the same point.)
Randolph was greatly gifted verbally as well as musically, and he was a man of a most loving and generous nature, combining the gravitas and wisdom of age with the openness and spontaneity of youth—combining, as creativity must, both experience and innocence. He died last May, leaving a void that no one can fill.
But his St. Cecilia Chorus (named for the patron saint of music) fathered by him for forty-five years and, orphaned by his death, will continue to perform under other conductors. They are dedicating their 2010–11 concert season to David Randolph, a season that opens with Bach’s Christmas Oratorio at Carnegie Hall on December 23. Some of us who knew David well can hardly bear the idea of a Christmas Oratorio or a Messiah without him, but he would never have allowed such sentimentality. Performers and conductors come and go, but the music is always there, and it is certain that the St. Cecilia Chorus will bear the stamp of nearly a half-century with David Randolph for a very long time.
Oliver Sacks is a practicing physician and the author of ten books, including The Mind’s Eye, Musicophilia, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, and Awakenings (which inspired the Oscar-nominated film). He lives in New York City, where he is a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center and the first Columbia University Artist.