Maybe I just run in the wrong circles, but I can’t recall an incident in recent memory in which someone required me to defend my honour. There was a time not so long ago when throwing down the gloves was serious business, and it could have life-altering consequences. For centuries, the only appropriate action in a situation like this was to challenge one’s opponent to a duel. I’m not sad that this custom has fallen out of favour, I will admit.
The last public duel in Canada occurred in August of1873. Two young men named Mr. Dooley and Mr. Healey had fallen in love with the same woman. In the manliest of fashions, they concluded the only way to settle the matter honourably was a good old-fashioned duel. They met in a field somewhere in rural Newfoundland, paced off the requisite distance, turned and fired. Mr. Dooley fell to the ground. Mr. Healey was horrified that he had actually killed his opponent. In reality, Mr. Dooley was not dead, but instead, he was so nervous that he fainted. Neither opponent could have killed anyone, as their seconds informed them their guns were in fact loaded with blanks. Both parties apparently satisfied—but probably more relieved—the affair ended at a local pub. It’s not clear who got the girl.
Classical musicians may not seem like dueling types, but you should never judge a book by its stuffy old cover. George Frederick Handel, the man who gave us so much glorious music, including his universally beloved masterpiece Messiah, nearly had his life cut short at the age of eighteen in a duel.
One evening, Handel was playing violin in a pit orchestra, and suddenly found himself temporarily on the conductor’s podium. When the intended conductor returned a few arias later, Handel wouldn’t leave. Things got ugly and escalated quickly. A heated argument ultimately was taken out onto the street, swords were drawn, and Handel was struck squarely in the chest. Fortunately, a well-placed button on his coat deflected the blow and broke his opponent’s sword. Or so the story goes.
So Handel’s Messiah nearly never happened, and what a tragedy that would have been. No other piece of music—except maybe Tchaikovksy’s ballet The Nutcracker—has so enduringly become a part of our collective Christmas experience. Messiah was first performed in Dublin in 1741, just in time for Easter, and somewhere along the way, it has moved permanently to Christmas time. Attending The Messiah has now become a cherished tradition in communities across the world. It’s hardly surprising; Handel’s music has an uncanny ability to stir in us raw human emotion. No one can hear the Hallelujah chorus without feeling an unbridled sense of joy, and the final chorus Amen has the undeniable power to bring us to our feet.
For 275 years and counting, people have been flocking to performances of this great work. Let’s be thankful well-placed buttons.