Assange: cyber Messiah

ANU Chamber Choir director Tobias Cole sees parallels between Julian Assange and the persecuted Christ when he reflects on Handel’s Messiah.

POPULAR doesn’t quite say it: Messiah may well be the most performed piece of classical music. It’s certainly the most hummed – everybody must know the first 10 words of the Hallelujah Chorus – actually, it’s one word: “Hallelujah” repeated. The whole work has been a staple of amateur choirs, probably for centuries. At the first performance in Dublin on April 13, 17 42, tickets sold out so fast that ladies were asked to come without their grand hooped skirts so that more people could be crammed in.

There is more than materialism and more than we perceive with our five senses. So the story of Christ as told in Messiah is powerful beyond the Christian story for him.” – Tobias Cole, Hallelujah Chorus.

So the Llewellyn Hall at the Australian National University may well be crowded on Friday and Saturday, July 8 and 9. But the work is more than just a string of the very best tunes, according to Tobias Cole who will sing in it, and who directs the ANU Chamber Choir. For him, it has meaning. He was brought up as a Christian but has lost that specific faith while retaining a wider sense of the spiritual. “People are in search of meaning. There is more than materialism and more than we perceive with our five senses,” he said.

So the story of Christ as told in Messiah is powerful beyond the Christian story for him. He sees parallels between Julian Assange and the persecuted Christ when he reflects on the Messiah in which he sings, “He was despised.” “I’m not saying he is the Messiah but the parallel is very poignant,” he explained.

“How do we tolerate someone who comes into our lives and challenges authority?” It’s a point of view. Even if it’s not your point of view, the vibrancy of Messiah always rings out. George Frideric Handel composed it in 24 days. His pen must have burned the paper. Even Mozart was in awe: “Handel knows better than any of us what will make an effect. When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.”

The big thunderbolt in Messiah is the that it has become conventional for the audience to stand for it, so there is invariably an awkward moment in any performance where some stand bravely and everybody else watches nervously – and then the rest stand.

It is said that the habit was started because King George II fell asleep and was then awoken by the blast of the ten “Hallelujahs”, and in his confusion stood. This may not be true. All the same, the moment will come. Tobias Cole is uncommitted on whether standing is the right thing to do but wouldn’t be against it.

“I personally love audience participation, and the audience feeling they can be part of the performance. “It’s a tradition which can’t be controlled, and a few people stand and the rest will follow.” The chorus drives Messiah.

The musical numbers for the choir figure as strongly as those for the four soloists, and that may be why the oratorio has become so popular. It was a great work for the choral societies of the industrial north of England. It gave the large choruses lots to sing about.


That tradition of choral singing also produced great voices – like that of Kathleen Ferrier who made the contralto parts her own. She left school at 14 and became a telephone operator in a Lancashire mill town before she won a singing competition. Eventually, her rendition of He was despised from Messiah became the one piece of classical music many people of previous generations knew.

She died at the age of 41 from breast cancer. It’s a hard act to follow for those who were brought up on that record. Tobias Cole will not sound like Kathleen Ferrier. He is a man – a counter-tenor at the high end of the male range – and she was a woman – a contralto, at the low end of the female range – so the make-up of the vocal chords is different. The timbre of the voice is different – but still very beautiful.

Apart from singing, Tobias is the director of the ANU Chamber Choir which forms the core of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra choir in Messiah. This is a departure for the orchestra. “The CSO has used choirs in the past that have been established choirs while this project it is the CSO’s own choir, with the hope of doing more choral works.” He likes that feeling of togetherness in a choir, and the way people listen to each other and adapt to become part of a greater whole, even without thinking about it – of an “unconscious blend” to use his words. And this comes back to Mr Cole’s view that there is, for him, a political undercurrent to Messiah. It’s not just the story of Christ’s persecution, execution and salvation for him – it’s also about an individual challenging an Establishment.

And about people freeing themselves from the tyranny of technology. “Everybody is engaging via machines,” he says. So when we hear the aria Let us break our bonds asunder, he hears a plea to break our own bonds to inhuman technology. He wants to get back to “an instinctive connection between people”. Whether you agree, and whether you like your choirs big or small or your voices male or female, Messiah is glorious. Who can doubt that the tunes are great. From Dublin in 17 42 to Canberra in 2022, the music will resound, and stay in the mind long after. The urge to hum along will be intense.

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First appeared in the Canberra Times

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