In fast-moving modern times, tradition can often be seen to be less important than progress and innovation. Indeed, it may be seen as holding back progress, as when some admirals tried to block Winston Churchill’s reforms on the basis of the traditions of the Royal Navy. His famous riposte, that these were rum, sodomy and the lash, is of a piece with a dismissive attitude to tradition.
Yet one of the great philosophers of our age, Hans-Georg Gadamer, pointed to the centrality of tradition to our being, not as a form of unthinking conservatism but rather a complex form of knowledge and inquiry, many aspects of which do not easily fall into explicit categories, which should provoke reaction and incite knowledge rather than acquiescence.
Our challenge with tradition is to ensure that it becomes servant and stimulus rather than our master: with active engagement, tradition will itself modulate and change. As Gadamer wrote, even a revolution is a response to a tradition that nonetheless makes use of that very same tradition.
One of the most enduring and appealing traditions in healthcare is that of artistic performance as support and fund-raising for healthcare and the needy, a tradition most vibrantly enacted in the major impact of Live Aid on public consciousness of famine relief.
The tradition that Live Aid embodied had an illustrious predecessor in Dublin 275 years ago, the charity premiere of Handel’s Messiah in the aid of two hospitals and the relief of prisoners. The hospitals, Mercer’s Hospital and the Charitable Infirmary, no longer function as distinct entities but are incorporated into St James’s and Beaumont hospitals respectively.
What is particularly fascinating about the link between Dublin and the Messiah is the way that this tradition has been both maintained and developed over the years
Over the years this tradition has emerged around the world, from Hogarth’s paintings for St Batholomew’s Hospital in London to many of the premiere performances of Beethoven’s symphonies and concertos.
What is particularly fascinating about the link between Dublin and the Messiah is the way that this tradition has been both maintained and developed over the years. Subsequent to the Dublin premiere, further benefit performances of the Messiah took place in London in aid of the Foundling Hospital, in turn developing the tradition of the Messiah as a key element of the Christmas tradition.
One of the mainstays of the Christmas Messiah in Dublin is provided by Our Lady's Choral Society, and through this group we can see this pattern of engagement with the tradition, which responds to and breathes new life into this tradition.
One link has been with the birthplace of Handel, Halle, a fascinating city near Leipzig that has maintained Handel's house as a museum, the Händel Haus. In recognition of both tradition and excellence, the music director of Our Lady's Choral Society, Proinnsias O'Duinn, has been selected to be conductor of an annual performance, called Happy Birthday Handel, of the Messiah in February in Halle. This is a remarkable event whereby choristers from around the world apply to sing in the chorus, including a number of Irish singers.
In addition, this year the Händel Haus accepted a gift from Dublin for its permanent exhibition of a painting by Pauline Scott, a former president of Watercolour Society of Ireland, of the site at Fishamble Street where the Messiah was first performed.
Fishamble Street is also the site of a new tradition forged to celebrate the anniversary of the Messiah on April 13th, 1742. Each year on this date there is an open-air lunchtime performance of an abbreviated version of the Messiah by the choral society.
That this link between music and health is a part of evolving and living tradition will be seen (and heard) later this month in a charity performance of two contemporary classics on the afternoon of Sunday, April 23rd, in Merchant's Quay Church by Our Lady's Choral Society and the Dublin Brass Ensemble. Admission is free and a collection will be held in aid of the Merchant's Quay Project and Focus Ireland.
The timelessness of the central concerns of suffering, conflict and consolation map beautifully to the challenges of engaging with illness and disability
The works, John Rutter's Gloria, and Karl Jenkins's The Armed Man, and A Mass for Peace, are powerful, accessible and stimulating. They are also a remarkable testament to the continued potency of the tradition of sacred music and texts in a pluralist and increasingly secular society.
The timelessness of the central concerns of suffering, conflict and consolation map beautifully to the challenges of engaging with illness and disability, and are in harmony with a tradition that continues to console, challenge and support.
- Prof Desmond O'Neill is a consultant physician in geriatric and stroke medicine and professor in medical gerontology, Tallaght Hospital and Trinity College Dublin