Saturday, January 8, 2011

Handel's Messiah

     The most well known oratorio in my part of the world is Handel's Messiah.  Even people who have never sung in a choir love to sing along to many parts of this great work:   Hallelujah, I Know that My Redeemer Liveth and others.
      As a young child of about 10 years of age and lying sick on the couch, my Mom put on our recording of it and handed me the words.  She told me how this was a favourite of my Uncle Ewald and since he was a favourite of mine, I was already favourably disposed to it before the needle hit the vinyl.  She also told me the very intriguing part about the King rising during the Hallelujah Chorus and how audiences have continued to do it ever since.  I know there is no definitive answer as to why the king arose, and as Bill Baerg says, he was probably just stretching his legs, but I cling to the version my Mother told me of an earthly King being so moved by the majesty of the story Handel was telling that he rose in homage.
     Lying back in my sickbed Handel's composition swirled around me.  I was somewhat frustrated that one line of text took so very long to sing.  The single word Amen took even longer!  I am sure I fell asleep and woke up several times during the Amen Chorus alone.  Ruth Smith, who wrote the program notes for  Paul McCreesh's CD of Handel's Messiah, says that  "...a setting of the single abstract word, 'Amen', which combines contrast of instruments and voices, harmony and polyphony, counterpoint and chordal statement and a seemingly infinitely expanding span of melody.  But whether or not the listener is aware of this complexity, the dominant effect is stirringly emotional."

     I have been part of many performances of the Handel's Messiah, some better than others, but all special.
I have sung it with Boris Brott as part of a 500 voice choir at that, oh so ridiculous venue - The Winnipeg Arena.  Each chorus had a five minute start up and ending as one waited for the subsiding of the squeak of the chairs as choristers stood and sat.  Luckily I was in a non-squeaking chair as part of the then Winnipeg Symphony Philharmonic Choir now , known affectionately as The Phil.  We were lucky enough to be an "inner chorus" and were allowed to sing what they called "turbo choruses" such as "For unto us a child is Born" and "He shall Purify" and others by ourselves.  I was so lucky, as a young university student, to be able to sing with this group.
     Much more recently, in December 2008,  I sang a memorable performance of it with Noel Edison and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.  Maestro Edison brought a unique interpretation to a work that I had, by now, sung for at least 6 performances if not more.  It was fresh and exciting, even though it seemed hokey at first the performance worked for the choristers and audience alike.  For example, his version of  With his stripes we are healed"  had us working very hard to do the following:  Every time your voice part sang 'and with his stripes" we were to sing stridently and mezzo forte with an accent on each word, then when you sing the next phrase, we are healed we sang it softer and legato. The diference between the two phrases was more dramatic than any other conductor had previously demanded and the stark contrast between side by side phrases  took a lot of energy to do it to his liking, but it worked.  Most memorable was his idea that the sheep in All we like Sheep were not the dumb fluffy sheep, we had always sung about, prancing through the meadow, but menacing sheep who were dirty and depraved.  We had to sing the song in a more disgusted tone than previously or since.  ( I sang it with the WSO and Rudy Schellenberg in December 2010 and the sheep were in the meadow again.)

For all performances, the audience plays a large part.  It is more difficult to sing to empty seats, therefore it was most gratifying when on December 18, 2010 Rudy Schellenberg made his WSO debut, to a sold-out house.  Just when this alto feared she may have become slightly jaded about the Messiah she sees the full house and becomes nervous about the alto entries.  After all, in both the first and second halves of Messiah the Altos make the opening statement, (gulp),  and when the tenor sang Thy rebuke has broken his Heart, I felt mine surely would break as well,  and wasn't I surprised when during the opening of the Hallelujah chorus I had a lump in my throat and things appeared slightly blurry before me. 
The alchemy of composer, music, performer and audience is a powerful thing.


  1. Thank-you, Lori for that insight into "The Messiah" of my favourite pieces as well. I love to hear how much of yourself you pour into your singing .... I am impressed...and proud of you!!


  2. Thanks for the inside view. I have likely little to add, but I will try.

    Having recently attended Handel's Messiah in San Francisco, I read the history of it and a few things impressed me. I find it difficult not to see divine intervention. In short, and apologize if you already know all this, but shortly before he wrote the music for Messiah, Handel was sick and about to go to debtors prison for not paying his bills. A friend of his had arranged different Bible versus together and the way it was assembled so touched Handel, that he locked himself in a room for 3 weeks, and created 240 pages of music to the words. Some have called "Messiah" the greatest accomplishment in music history due to the beauty and speed of its creation. A year later, the profits from its performance enabled Handel to not only avoid debtors prison, but he freed over 100 people from debtros prison, and in the future donations have given it the acclaim of the most charitable oratorio of all time.

  3. Thank you so much for the comments. As far as I know Handel was always a relatively fast worker, but the Messiah was very quick. He composed it in the 3 weeks, and it is a large work, without ever leaving his room. His servant would bring him meals but they were often left uneaten. While writing the "Hallelujah", his servant discovered him with tears in his eyes. Handel said, "I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself!!"
    So the divine was certainly involved in the composition as far as Handel himself reports.

  4. Ack! I'm behind on so many posts!!

    Oh Lori . . you are a good writer. But we all know that already. Sigh.

    Okay, I have a few personal things to add.

    1. On Christmas morning, Dale and I were in the kitchen making waffles. CBC radio was broadcasting a live, Handel's Messiah. It was heaven. After a bit, I just couldn't help myself, and I was singing along. My kids looked at me like I'd just landed from Mars. Then they got this big grin on their faces and begged for more. So I delivered on all the solos, etc (as much as I knew, anyway). Now they always ask me to sing 'Handel's Messiah'. So funny.

    2. During my Art class at school I let the kids pick some music (classical, world, jazz . . b/c they don't really listen to that . . . ever!) to listen to while they create. So this last week of the girls picked 'Classical Kids' story of the The Magic Flute. They all looked at me with these weird grins. "What??? We have to listen to opera!". When I started singing (or rather botching) the Queen of the Night aria, they just howled. I think they reluctantly left the CD in, just in case their teacher made another fool of herself. I am always amazed and inspired by children's reaction to classical pieces.

    3. I don't have a lot of classical or choral stuff in my collection. Any suggestions for 'must haves'? I'm particularly looking for stuff the kids would enjoy in the van or at school.

  5. That 2008 performance of Messiah is memorable. It beats all before and so far after.
    Just adding to what you wrote, those sheep were definitely not the same sheep, one really felt sheepish, wanting to hide. What about "Worthy is the lamb that was His BLOOD!!!" That was powerful I can still hear that BLUNT, sharp, "SLAIN" "BLOOD" I got shivers and not good ones. Thank goodness for the glorious following redemption. Sometimes you think that ending Chorus just goes on too long, but I wanted it to go on forever and ever and ever. Blessing and honour, glory and power be unto Him. That was an amazing (I mean amazing, not the overused N.American way) truly amazing performance. So glad I could be there for it and sit with the lovely Natasha, that was a real treat sharing the evening with her.

  6. Caroline, I agree. That "blood" was hard to spit out but so effective. Choristers from that performance still talk about it.
    BTW, do you come back to these posts to see if there are new comments. Email me to let me know if you even read this. I am not sure if I should respond to people here or via email.