Tickets sales have begun for the singular choral event of the Christmas season: a performance of “Messiah,” by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759).
The oratorio, which in its fullness lasts over three hours, depicts orchestral arrangements of biblical narratives that span the life of Christ, including the prophecies of his coming, his birth, life, death, resurrection, and culminating glory. The concert has become a standard feature of Advent, though Handel himself intended it to be a Lenten celebration.
“Handel, in haste and in circumstance … didn’t orchestrate and mark exactly how he intended the music to be performed.”
The oratorio was written in 1741, when Handel, who was living in London, received an invitation from the Lord Lieutenant of Dublin to write an oratorio to be performed (in Dublin) at the New Music Hall early the following year. He accepted the invitation and completed the project in 24 days, in what some have deemed a rapturous inspiration — during which time he took little food or drink. Less sentimental musicologists demur, suggesting such emotionalism is not Handel’s style. For these skeptics, it simply came down to method, memory, and concentration.
The Dublin performance was a smashing success — Handel donated the proceeds to three charities — and a year later, during the reign of George II, Handel held another performance in London. This performance spawned the tradition of standing during “Hallelujah” because, when the chorus began, King George II, who was present at the performance, himself stood up. Royal protocol demands that when the king stands, everyone else stands. Thereafter, audiences to this day have stood at the sound of those familiar and transporting opening measures of “Hallelujah.”
Through his life, Handel adapted “Messiah” repeatedly in conjunction with the disposition of its various singers and musicians. Mozart, too, re-orchestrated “Messiah” to suit his own tastes. Over time, after Handel’s death, “Messiah” has continued to be tweaked and innovated in part because, as music scholar Peter Jacobi noted, “Handel, in haste and in circumstance and in the tradition of his age, didn’t orchestrate and mark exactly how he intended the music to be performed.”
I heard a story of a choir director who agreed to lead a community choir in a Christmas performance of this work of art. She was of a fastidious ilk, perched behind her podium, wand in hand, tapping, tapping, tapping in an effort to get the altos here and tenors there, sopranos hither and basses thither — to once and for all get it right. She failed. The singers struggled at every turn, and in the end the director declared in exasperation, “I can’t do anything with you! You are nothing but a bunch of amateurs!”
Her replacement stepped in, took charge, and in a kind and genteel way assured the ragtag singers that by Christmas, they would know “Messiah” and be in command enough sing it. One person responded, “But we are only amateurs!” to which the kindly director responded, “Exactly. And I assume that since no one is paying you to be here, you are willing to work hard and learn, and that you are singing for your love of it. Who else could possibly sing this?”
From personal experience, I can attest that this replacement director got it right. On the occasion of my first participation in a performance, I learned there is nothing easy about singing “Messiah” and, if you dare to do so, expect a challenge. I believe Handel must have wanted it that way — that anyone who deigned to aspire to sing his masterpiece must first prove to be worthy of it, must earn it.
“I assume that since no one is paying you to be here, you are willing to work hard and learn, and that you are singing for your love of it.”
Beyond that — again, through personal experience — I believe he saved the most difficult piece for last: “Worthy Is the Lamb” and the “Amens.” Up to that point, you have been singing full-throated for three hours, standing for eight or 10 choruses during which time, intermittently, you have had to curl, hurl, twist, pull, wiggle your voice in eighth or quarter notes and rests with divergent pitch and variance in timing, while standing on the edge of a rise, shoulder to shoulder with fellow singers.
Thus, at the very end, singing “Amen” repeatedly for seven or eight minutes proves to be the most formidable stretch of the entire oratorio. It finally levels out for the last few measures to a simple sustained solid A-natural (for altos) — at which point you can actually relax, lift your eyes from the score sheet, and join in the worship.
I always expect a miracle when singing “Messiah.” Who can help but be inexplicably moved when hearing “Hallelujah”? I laughed at myself when I came in a beat too soon at one point during that chorus. Yes, you heard me. I came in a beat too soon while singing the “Hallelujah” chorus — though thankfully I was right on pitch. At the time I felt as if I’d never recover from that moment, but I did.
You see, you are reminded when singing “hallelujah” intermittently with “King of kings and Lord of lords,” that there is a protagonist in a grander story — and that He makes all things right in the end. In that moment, the indelicacies and inconveniences of our small lives grow dim.
There are moments when singing “Messiah” that I thought the heavens might open. But the missed beat in “Hallelujah” reminded me: not yet. Singing it was transporting — but it wasn’t perfect. How could it be? We who sing it are only amateurs, and the music — only a foretaste.
Wendy Murray served as regional correspondent for TIME magazine in Honduras in the early 1990s and later, as associate editor and senior writer at Christianity Today magazine. She is the author of 10 nonfiction books and a novel.