I was deployed to Bosnia in 1998 as part of Operation Joint Forge/Joint Guard and served with 2nd Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army near Tulza, Bosnia. While I was there I was given a four-day pass to Budapest, Hungary.
Hungary was a soon-to-be member of NATO and was used by the Stabilization Forces (SFOR) as a staging area for operations into the former Yugoslavia.
As part of the four-day pass, soldiers were transported by bus through the Hungarian countryside and deposited on an island in the Danube River at the steps of the Thermal Hotel for three nights and four days to ourselves.
My partner on this expedition in freedom was 1st Sgt. Robert Johnson, my detachment’s senior noncommissioned officer — “Top.” After a quick recon to find a bus and trolley map of downtown, we headed out to the old fortress known as the Buda Castle for some sightseeing.
Mattais Church, Hungary
In the Buda Castle Quarter, we checked out the castle, shops and the 700-year-old Mattais Church, or Coronation Church of Our Lady. As we browsed through the vaulted hall of this gothic and Baroque church, we learned that the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir would be performing Handel’s Messiah the next day.
Top and I thought it would be great opportunity to catch a live performance. It was April after all, and Easter had been the previous week—by this time we had both been away from our families for nearly four months.
So we sought out tickets for the performance. A stout gentleman manned the ticket sales near one of the side portals to the church, and I offered to buy the tickets.
“Excuse me, do you speak English?” I asked.
“Yes, I do,” he replied in what I could best describe as a German-Magyar accent.
“Two tickets for the Messiah, please.”
“600 Florint, please,” he replied.
“Thank you.” I said. “I have one question: what language will it be sung in?”
He thought for a moment. “Why in the original German, of course.”
I smiled. “Certainly, thank you,” I said, and we took our tickets and continued our sightseeing.
I explained to my first sergeant the reason behind my smile, and said that we’ll have to see come the performance, which language it was indeed.
One thing I’ll admit, I am not a music scholar. But having sung in hometown and collegiate performances of the Messiah, I was somewhat familiar with it. I'd also picked up a thing or two tending to the airing of several years worth of “Adventures in Good Music” on the network.
Inside Mattais Church, Hungary
The Budapest performance would have come just over 256 years to the day since it was first performed in Dublin, Ireland on April 13, 1742. The libretto was written by Englishman Charles Jennens. Handel had been a guest at the Jennens’ estate in Leicestershire, England and set it to music in less than a month. It was not translated into German until W.A. Mozart was commissioned to arrange it 1789.
We returned the next day to hear a very enjoyable performance, in the beautiful setting of the Mattais Church. The Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra occasionally drowned out the choir and soloists. The words were hard to distinguish at first, until you could account for their accents; a wonderful performance in a historic venue during a very nontraditional vacation … another war story for my grandchildren.
Previous posts on Classically Speaking by Bob Powell:
* Gimme that Old Time Religion
* A Little Traveling Music
* Idol and Glee: Not So Original?