AMAC Exclusive – By David P. Deavel
Among the most beloved traditions in America in December is the performance of George Friedrich Handel’s famous oratorio, Messiah. Through this work, which Handel’s biographer Ellen T. Harris speculates “may be the best-known piece of classical music ever written,” covers not only the birth but the death and resurrection of Christ, it became early on a staple of Christmas music, especially in America. That is perfectly appropriate theologically, for Christians believe that every moment of Christ’s life was lived for mankind—and his birth itself was the first glorious public appearance of the light that would shine in the darkness and ultimately bring liberation from sin, misery, and death. For Luis Haza, a great Cuban-American musician and conductor, that glorious liberation from sin and death that he hears in Messiah is not merely a promise for the future but also a reminder of God’s help in his own life.
There have been a great many commentators on Handel’s great work. Amadeus Mozart, reportedly a pretty good composer, was recruited later in the 18th century to re-orchestrate Messiah, among other Handel works. One music scholar described Mozart’s changes to the oratorio as “stucco ornaments on a marble temple.” Mozart himself did not think he had improved the score, declaring, “Handel knows better than any of us what will make an effect. When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.” Beethoven said, “Handel is the greatest composer who ever lived. I would uncover his head and kneel before his tomb.” Yet as remarkable as such comments are from the greats of music, the commentary of Luis Haza is particularly poignant not only because of his career as a virtuoso violinist and conductor with the National Symphony Orchestra, among others, but also the remarkable story of his family’s struggle for freedom in Cuba and the divine help that manifested itself in a miraculous escape from the island nation in 1964 and a life to give thanks for here in the U. S.
Handel’s great work was itself considered something of a miracle. Having been presented with a text of Old and New Testament passages by one of his main librettists, Charles Jennens, Handel wrote from morning till evening every night for twenty-four days in the summer of 1741. Though Jennens thought the speed of Handel’s composition showed a lack of care about the project, history judged otherwise.
Was it inspired in a quasi-supernatural sense? Haza, with whom I spoke by phone this week, thinks so: “I totally believe he was inspired. He had an inspiration from God. . . . To write it when they didn’t have computers, it is truly unbelievable. And it is perfectly written, not only for the orchestra but for the singers.” Again, Haza has some authority in these matters even just considering him professionally. A winner of the prestigious Heroes Award Grammy and a renowned violinist for the National Symphony Orchestra for thirty-six years, he studied with renowned violinists such as Efrem Zimbalist, was coached by the great Mstislav Rostropovich, played solos at the White House, and conducted not only the National Symphony but also the London Symphony Orchestra and the national orchestras of Panama, Chile, and El Salvador.
Now retired, Haza recalls with awe and fondness the performances of the oratorio for two weeks every year at the Kennedy Center with delight. “I was always touched,” he tells me, not just because these concerts were always sold out, but because of the greatness and difficulty of the music. “It is one of the major works in the classical music literature,” he says, but it “is not always easy to play.” In fact, he knows that not everybody was as keen on this stretch of the season as he was. “Some get tired of playing it, for violin and strings players, it can be tiring—but not me. I feel enthused and energized.”
That enthusiasm comes not merely from the greatness of the music itself but from the way that it adorns and brings out the meaning of the texts. “Each section of the music,” he tells me, “captures the spirit of the biblical text. That is tremendous!” It made each playing memorable “for me because it is the story of Jesus Christ,” but the story told beginning “even before he was born,” with the Prophet Isaiah foretelling his coming.
For Haza, it is a “profound thing” and a “highly spiritual” experience that he has. And though violinists with sore arms may not always feel it, he knows that many of the people who come to the Kennedy Center or any of the other large halls in which it is performed year after year are also coming for something more than the notes. “People come in lieu of coming to a church,” he tells me. “And it really is a spiritual experience.”
True to his belief in the perfection of the work, Haza mentions a great many parts of Messiah in our conversation. What I love about his conversation is that this virtuoso is also still an amateur in the sense of being truly a lover of music, often dum-da-dee-ing the music and singing it for me as he gives his commentary. He puts special emphasis on several parts, including “The Trumpet Shall Sound” and “To Us a Child is Born,” but for him the “Hallelujah Chorus” is, as with most people, the high point of Messiah. And what is most “amazing” to him is when the audience rises for it.
“I cannot describe how amazing it is,” he says. Hallelujah means “Praise be to God,” and Haza is delighted at people standing for a chorus doing so. He, after all, has enough to praise God for in his own life. “Everything I do is for God’s glory,” he tells me. “He got me out of Cuba in mysterious ways.” And indeed, he did. Though Haza did not want to talk much about his time in Cuba, it is clear that his own story is why he tells me, “To be Cuban and play with the National Symphony Orchestra was very special to me.”
Haza’s father was the chief of police in Santiago, Cuba, one who had protested the corruption in Fulgencio Batista’s government. When Fidel Castro’s revolution turned out to bring not heaven but hell, the elder Haza protested yet again and was executed in 1959. The younger Haza, a violin prodigy, was made an associate concertmaster by the age of twelve and toured the country. He had enough of his father in him to refuse to be “integrated” into the regime, as he said in a 2007 interview. Asked to play a solo for Raul Castro, the boy refused. And when armed militia men showed up at rehearsal several days later, demanding that he play something, he played The Star-Spangled Banner. “The entire thing! You could hear a pin drop. I finished playing, and nobody knew what to do.”
Though he did not tell me that story, it explains why he did tell me he, his four siblings, and his mother would likely have been executed if they had not been able to get out in 1964. That sense of liberation and deliverance from death he feels when people stand for the Hallelujah Chorus is something that is a matter of divine faith but also something that God placed before his very own eyes.
He hopes other people see it. “There is nothing more liberating than the message of Jesus Christ,” he says. And though he does not want to conflate Christian faith and politics, he does note that American freedom is based in part in our biblical heritage. “Our roots are Judeo-Christian, and that is reflected in the Declaration.” That standing-up at the Hallelujah Chorus is itself a gift not to be taken lightly. Part of what is so amazing about it is “because we have the freedom to do it. . .at least we do now.”
For Luis Haza, as for most Americans, the drama of the Christian story of redemption is at the heart of their enjoyment of this Christmas classic. The freedom of the soul given by faith in Christ is most important to them. But it is no surprise that a nation whose foundations were so biblical would find that political freedom is the fitting way to treat human beings who know that their redeemer lives. Perhaps the most faith-filled and patriotic thing we can do this year is to listen again to Handel’s masterpiece and get others to listen, too, and stand in praise of God so that they might better know their own dignity and discover the goodness of freedom. This would no doubt please Handel, who famously said of his listeners, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wish to make them better.”
David P. Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas (MN). He is the co-host of the Deep Down Things podcast.