Last year, the final year of Confederate Yankee, I wrote about my experience as a classical musician, particularly in the performance of Handel’s Messiah. This year, I’ve rewritten that initial piece and updated it in the hope of giving readers a sense not only of what it is like to perform such works, but of the importance and transcendent beauty of Messiah. It is truly one of the works of art that everyone should know, for none who know it can help being enlarged—made more than they were—by the experience.
It started for me in high school. Our choir, directed by Clayton Southwick, a delightfully talented tenor and director, had a tradition of long standing: at each Christmas concert every prior member of the choir was invited onstage to sing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Even then, as unschooled in music history as I was, I understood it was something special. Our choir sang many “classical” works, music that was demanding and beautiful, music that connected us with centuries of performance and joy, but Hallelujah spoke to me, to us all, in ways I could not explain. As the final chord died away and the concert ended in thunderous applause, I could not help but feel an upwelling of emotion, pride, reverence, even humility. It took me many years to understand it well enough to put into words, inadequate as they are.
Even as a child, music spoke to me. I could hear a work once and recall the melody, even bang out the chord structure on the piano. With the arrival of the Beatles, I was hooked, and picked up the guitar, and instrument I play to this day. By the time I entered Jr. High, my voice settled into the Tenor I range—the highest male voice—and as soon as the choir director knew that, I was pulled inexorably into the world of choral music.
I was fortunate to live in a town—Aberdeen, SD—with a tradition of excellence in bands and choirs. This was—fortunately–before the days of pre-recorded accompaniment tapes. Excellent student accompanists were trained and had plentiful performance opportunities. Strong singers—and I was blessed (some might say cursed) with a very strong voice—had plentiful solo opportunities, and that is how I was introduced to the solos of Messiah, for they are a staple of the training of any professional singer.
In my youth, I worked almost entirely by ear, and as such, developed a very strong intuitive feeling for music. It was not until my early 30s when I completed my undergraduate degree that I truly learned music theory and history, which were revelations. Suddenly I understood why everything that “sounded right” to me in the past, sounded right. I became, in a very real sense, a whole musician, able to work by ear and by sight-reading, by music, if you will.
Over the years I have had the opportunity to perform the works of the masters with many fine choruses and orchestras. I’ve performed as soloist, choral singer and director. I even got to play the “cannon” in a performance of the 1812 Overture, yet of all of the wonderful pieces of music I’ve had the pleasure and honor to perform, one calls to me like no other.
It is, once again, Christmas. Many people of many faiths celebrate the season. Some as a profound religious observance, others to take part in the giving, the music, the colors, sights, smells and tastes. But all can share in a centuries old tradition: George Fredrich Handel’s ‘Messiah.” A small taste of the magic of Messiah can be seen here (be sure to play the video at the end of the article). It is surely being performed near you. If you’ve never experienced it, you owe it to yourself and to your family to take advantage of the opportunity.
As befits the Christmas season, random acts of magic are breaking out around American and in Canada. In shopping mall food courts, in huge department stores, choirs are singing the “Hallelujah” Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. As recorded in many clips on the ubiquitous You Tube, those present first react with surprise, amazement and ultimately delight and emotion. Such is the miracle of music. Such is the transcendent, transformative magic of Messiah. Without knowing it, virtually everyone knows Messiah. For example, in a scene from Home Alone, the little boy meets, in church, the old man that will eventually save him. In the background, a church choir is rehearsing a Messiah chorus.
Every year, I give my High School English classes three presents: the gift of music—Messiah; the gift of reading—a copy of A Christmas Carol; and a candy cane. I suppose you can call that the gift of red tongues. I give them a taste of Messiah, of the overture, the choruses and solos. And I give them the chance to attend a live performance, write a critique, and earn extra credit. Every year, some take advantage of that opportunity and take a step into a new, bigger, brighter world. From the program of a “Messiah” performance I did many years ago:
It is September 14, 1741 in London, England. After 24 days of working like a man possessed, George Fredrich Handel bursts from his composing chamber clutching the finished 259 page manuscript of “Messiah” in his trembling hands. Confronting a stunned servant, Handel, tears streaming from his eyes, exclaims “I did think I did see all of heaven before me and the great God Himself!”
Considering the mystical power and majesty of the work, this dramatic story is plausible, but it is almost certainly an exaggeration. Handel, who emigrated from Germany to England, was not known as a devoutly religious man, but was without doubt, a passionate man.
There are many “he did what?!” stories of Handel’s adventurous life, such as his mid-performance, orchestra pit fistfight with a friend over one of the finer points of conducting, or his duel with another friend, a duel that nearly resulted in his death. As the story goes, Handel’s opponent produced a deadly thrust, but the point of his sword hit one of the large metal buttons of Handel’s coat, snapping the blade of his sword. The duelists, perhaps with considerable relief, took this as a sign, embraced and became fast friends again.
Fast forward 270 years: It is December 5, 2011, Bass Hall, Ft. Worth, Texas. The annual performance of Messiah begins in an hour. This, of all the performances held in Bass Hall, is always sold out. The forty+ members of the Ft. Worth Symphony who will be playing the Oratorio and the 110 members of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Master Chorale have already begun to arrive and prepare, but their preparations are unusual.
At virtually any other “classical” concert, the players can be heard practicing challenging, unfamiliar, passages not quite under their fingers. Singers do the same, working on passages that force them to keep their eyes only on the music rather than on the conductor. But not tonight. It’s not necessary. Virtually every member of the Symphony has played Messiah many, many times. It’s familiar, comfortable. The Master Chorale is comprised almost equally of Seminary students and community singers, musicians from 18 to 70 from around the world, and like the Symphony, most have performed “Messiah” many, many times. But it is part of the magic of “Messiah” that in every choir, some are singing Messiah for the first time, and in every audience, some are hearing Messiah for the first time. Some will sing, or hear, it for the last time. The experience will move them all.
One of the great powers and pleasures of good art is that one can return to it again and again over time, because each and every time they will experience it anew. They will find new insights, new ideas, new wonders, not only because of the depth and transcendent beauty of the work, but because they are new each time they return. Their experiences, their knowledge acquired since the last exposure to the work allows them to see, to understand, to appreciate what they could not before. In music, Messiah is one of these essential works, a work that is never tiring for listener or performer, a work that holds new, undiscovered surprises and joys at each hearing and each performance. One cannot be said to truly know music without knowing Messiah.
It was Charles Jennens (1700-1773) who approached Handel with the libretto for “Messiah.” The son of a wealthy landowner, Jennens, a devoted Christian, received a fine classical education at Oxford. His careful, harmonious choice of scripture from the Old and New Testaments combined seamlessly with Handel’s music. “Messiah” was written in three parts: The first extolls the prophecy about and coming of Christ. The second, begins with the chorus “Behold the Lamb of God (That taketh away the sins of the world)” and ends with the triumphant “Hallelujah,” (praise ye the Lord). The section concerns the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. The third, which speaks of the triumph over death and sin purchased by Christ begins with the achingly beautiful soprano solo “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth,” and ends with the thunderous, joyful chorus, “Worthy Is The Lamb That Was Slain/Amen.
Messiah is an Oratorio. Think of it as an opera, but without costumes, sets and props. The same types and level of singing are required. It consists of 53 separate pieces of music, beginning, like opera, with a solemn, powerfully soaring overture, which is only one of the two pieces the orchestra plays alone. The other is the brief but beautifully contemplative “Pastoral Symphony” in the first section. The other pieces are recitatives (short solos, usually with sparse accompaniment, known as “dry” recitatives), arias (also known as airs; technically demanding, longer solos characterized by long runs sung on a single vowel) and choruses, sung by the entire choir, which can be quite short, such as #17, the 49 measure long “Glory to God,” or long, such as #53, the 159 measure long “Worthy Is The Lamb That Was Slain,” which incorporates the final, thrilling “Amen” (so be it) chorus. If performed in its entirety, Messiah lasts for a bit under three hours. Modern audiences, having a multitude of entertainments at their fingertips, generally lack the patience for the entire work, so this performance will last only about one hour and forty minutes, which is common for contemporary Messiah performances.
The musical life of classical musicians consists of rehearsing long, complex works, and usually performing them only once. They have one chance to get it right, to create magic, to sing not only the notes and rhythms, but to sing the music, and it is put aside for the next work. There are some works, such as the Mozart Requiem Mass in Dm, that a musician will perform many times over the years, but for singers, even singers who can sing most of the score from memory, Messiah provides an unusual opportunity to truly master the score. It is always challenging, inspiring them to sing more perfectly, more artistically and beautifully with each performance.
Writing “Messiah” in 24 days was an amazing feat, but was not uncommon for Handel who usually wrote with a specific performance–even performances–in mind. He was not afraid of recycling his own previous musical ideas, a number of which appear in “Messiah.” Like most composers of his time, plagiarism was not only not forbidden, but widely embraced. Speaking of his pilfering of the works of others, Handel once said: “I know what to do with these tunes and they don’t.” And so he did.
Twenty minutes before the concert begins: with the held of several stagehands, I finish the final placement of choir chairs. My position on the Chorale Board of Directors and men’s section leader dictates this. There are always people who, at the last minute, can’t make it, and empty chairs are distracting.
Ten minutes before the concert begins: Most of the orchestra is seated. The choir files in, folders in their left hands–away from the audience–and remains standing until all are present. A few players run portions of the work, but only to warm up. The concert master, Michael Shih the first chair first violinist, takes the stage to applause and directs the initial tuning of the orchestra to A 440–concert pitch. In Handel’s time, concert pitch was a half step lower.
One instrument unusual on the modern concert stage is the double manual harpsichord. The piano had not yet been invented in the 1700’s; the only keyboard choices available were the organ and harpsichord. The two-keyboard instrument which resembles a small, angular grand piano, gets its characteristic sound by means of tiny picks that pluck the strings, guitar-like, when keys are depressed rather than striking them like the hammers of the piano. This creates a quaint, sparkling sound that reaches back to Handel’s time, reminding the musicians of the long, sacred tradition in which they are about to take part.
Tuning complete, the soloists–bass, alto, soprano and tenor–take the stage to the eager applause of the audience which renews for the conductor, Dr. David Thye (“Tea”), Professor of Church Music and Chair of Conducting. Dr. Thye came to the Seminary after years of directing at Carnegie Hall. He’s a conductor’s conductor, authoritative, precise, but friendly, passionate, funny, even outrageous. Every movement of his baton and hand have precise meaning. There is an old joke about the beginning conductor who takes the podium to find a note on the music stand: “Wave stick until music stops, then bow.” With Thye, there is no doubt about the performance he desires. He is a superb interpreter of the score and every musician on stage watches and follows him closely. He will gauge the performers and audience carefully and will direct some portions of the work differently than he did in rehearsal to better fit the mood.
It is in moments of adversity that character truly emerges, and so it is with Thye. He is suffering from severe degeneration in his knees and in four days will undergo the replacement of both. He chooses to put off the surgery so he can complete this performance—so important is Messiah to him, to us and to the community–but he is clearly in pain.
After the overture, the mood is established. The audience watches with absolute quiet and rapt attention. The tenor soloist, John Cornish, Associate Master Chorale Conductor and doctoral graduate student at the Seminary, rises. He is graduating this year. This may well be his final Messiah with the Chorale.
He is the first singer heard by the audience, performing the recitative “Comfort Ye My People,” followed immediately by the quick and demanding aria “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted.” John is a strong, confident singer who floats the high notes with such ease and assurance they don’t sound high, and the audience smiles in satisfaction. He has made the right impression. They’re expecting a technically accomplished, apparently effortless performance and they get it.
For those who have done the solos–and there are many in the choir–it is hard to sit still, but sit still they must while keeping emotion off their faces. It’s unseemly to facially review a soloist’s performance in real time while sitting onstage behind them. The theater lights make it impossible to see most of the audience except the first few rows. The singers also avoid reading the music, merely opening their scores to their next chorus. All performing arts are about properly focusing the attention of the audience, and all attention must be on the soloist, so the choir remains silent and still while mentally taking it all in, analyzing the performance of the orchestra, the response of the audience and the obvious confidence and mastery of the conductor, which in turn gives them confidence.
It is April 13, 1742 in Dublin Ireland. “Messiah” will be performed for the first time, with Handel conducting, for charity. The Charitable Musical Society, hoping for space for as many patrons as possible, begged “the Favour of the Ladies not to come with Hoops” and the Gentlemen “to come without their Swords.” The audience listened and approximately 700 people heard the first performance, which was a financial and critical success. The Dublin Journal wrote: “Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crowded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.
In the first section, the choral highlight is “For Unto Us A Child Is Born,” with its uplifting chorus: “And His name shall be called: Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” The chorus, like many in Messiah, contains difficult runs sung on a single vowel made doubly difficult by the necessity of every singer being perfectly coordinated, light and energetic. Tonight, the runs flow, the consonants are well placed, the vowels true. The piece dances joyfully. The bass soloist, Dr. David Robinson and Alto Soloist, Dr. Angelo Cofer, Seminary Professors of voice, add strong, dramatic performances, as does soprano soloist Ann Beloncik.
After intermission, the second section passes quickly as musicians and audience alike anticipate the “Hallelujah” Chorus. At the downbeat, the audience rises. The story goes that when the King of England first heard Messiah, he spontaneously rose for “Hallelujah.” Of course, when the King stood, everyone stood. It has since been tradition, a tradition that pays homage to the most widely known and emotionally affecting piece of music of the oratorio, affecting because of its singular, timeless message of praise to God. Another lasting tradition has become the performance of Messiah during the Christmas season though Handel intended it for Easter, when it was first performed.
In classical concerts, protocol dictates that applause be reserved until the end of the entire work. Tonight, at the dying of the final chord of “Hallelujah,” the audience immediately delivers a long, heartfelt standing ovation. Dr. Thye and all of us gratefully accept it. Live performance is irreplaceable for its ability to deliver moments of magic that live on in the hearts of those fortunate enough to experience it—onstage and in the audience.
Despite its initial success in Dublin, Messiah was not well received in London. Many thought it near blasphemous for opera singers to perform scripture in, of all places, a music hall, and Handel advertised “Messiah” not by its true title, but as “a sacred oratorio,” obviously anticipating just this sort of trouble. Yet, the work inevitably, gradually won over the public and by 1750, began to be regularly performed at Covent Garden in London in April or May. A young man later to be recognized as one of Christendom’s great theologians, John Wesley, attended a rare performance of “Messiah” in a church (church performances are now common) in 1758 and wrote: “I doubt if that congregation was ever so serious at a sermon as they were during this performance.
A highlight of the third section is “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” which features soloist Dr. David Robinson and Symphony Principal Steve Weger playing a, masterful, virtuoso and era-perfect trumpet part. Near the end of the section, Ann Beloncik, accompanied only by a single violin, cello and harpsichord, beautifully sings the soprano aria “If God Be For Us, Who Can Be Against Us.” The delicate grace of Handel’s instrumental and voice writing sparkles, as do the performances. It is a delightful moment, a moment that reaches back across the centuries to the kinds of performances Handel intended and gave.
The final chorus, “Worthy Is The Lamb, That Was Slain,” begins with great volume, intensity and majesty and ends in the same way, giving birth to the slow, soft and gentle “Amen” section which builds in intensity, volume and power–as if sung by the hosts of Heaven–to the final chord. Dr. Thye swells the last chord, and the choir gives every last ounce of focus and energy. When Dr. Thye and the soloists leave the stage for the last time, the choir sits, drenched in sweat, exhausted–few realize how physically demanding singing on this level is–but satisfied, fulfilled and already looking forward to next year.
As Messiah became accepted in London, Sir John Hawkins wrote: “a change of sentiment in the public began to manifest,” and “Messiah was received with universal applause.” In a letter to her brother in 1750, Mrs. Dews wrote: “His wonderful Messiah will never be out of my head; and I may say my heart was raised almost to heaven by it. It is only those people who have not felt the leisure of devotion that can make any objection to that performance.”
It is perhaps a truism that Christians may experience the work more intimately and intensely than others through their appreciation not only of the brilliant music, but of the message and inspiration of the libretto which is, after all, holy scripture. At many places in the score, it is very easy for me to be overwhelmed by the significance of the words–the gospel. I can prevent tears only by fierce concentration of singing the music as well and sensitively as possible.
Christian or not, one would truly have to have a heart of stone to fail to appreciate such beauty. As long as civilization exists, Messiah will be performed and continue to inspire men to excellence, faith, hope, charity and magic. Works such as Messiah might well be said to reveal the presence of God’s inspiration.
I cannot perform Messiah without seeing the hand of God in every note.