December 11, 2010

The Magic and Miracles of "Messiah"

It is, once again, the season of 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. While I delight in sharing the honor of blogging here with Bob and Brigid, I delight too in sharing another honor, that of regularly performing with a fine choir and symphony orchestra. I thought it might be interesting, at this time of year, for our readers to experience a performance of “Messiah” from the stage, and to learn of its history, through the eyes of a classically trained singer, a first tenor, one of the many of the chorus. 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.”

[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, a transplant from Germany, 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 269 years: It is December 6, 2010, 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 one 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 different, unusual.

At virtually any other “classical” concert, the players can be heard practicing sections of the work that are 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 touch them all.

One of the great powers and pleasures of good art is that one can, one must, return to it 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, beautiful, 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 #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 learning long, complex works, and usually performing them only once. They have one chance to get it right, to create magic, and it is put aside for the next work. Still, 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.]

It’s 7:20 PM. 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, 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 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.

After the overture, the mood is established. The audience watches with absolute quiet and rapt attention. The burden of first impression falls on the tenor
soloist, John Cornish, Associate Master Chorale Conductor and doctoral graduate student at the Seminary. He will be the first singer heard by the audience, performing the recitative “Comfort Ye My People,” followed immediately by the fast, bright, demanding aria “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted.” The aria is an opportunity for a good singer to show off, to make the audience smile, or to experience the musical equivalent of a fiery NASCAR crash. John is a good singer, a strong singer who sings 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, moving performance. They’re expecting magic.

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 and 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 Lynda Poston-Smith.

After intermission, the second section passes quickly as musicians and audience alike anticipate the “Hallelujah” Chorus. At the downbeat, the audience, following centuries of tradition, 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. Another lasting tradition has become the performance of “Messiah” during the Christmas season.

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," applause breaks out, hesitantly at first, but the audience quickly abandons tradition and propriety and delivers a long, heartfelt ovation. Dr. Thye, and all of us, gratefully soak it up. Live performance is irreplaceable for its ability to, upon occasion, deliver moments of magic, magic that lives on in the hearts of those fortunate enough to experience it. This was one of those moments. But the ovation is also a challenge to surpass its inspiration with the remainder of the work. Musicians are always only as good as their last performance.

[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 Steve Weger playing a true, tasteful, wonderfully controlled and era-perfect trumpet part. Near the end of the section, Lynda Poston-Smith, accompanied only by a single violin, cello and harpsichord, 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. Dr. Thye does not direct, but merely stands, unmoving, as captivated by the music as everyone present. Turning the piece over to the musicians is a mark of confidence and generosity that few conductors would make, but it is amply rewarded by yet another delightful moment of magic.

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. At his cut off, it is as if all the sound has suddenly gone out of the world. Everyone in the hall holds their breath...until the applause begins and does not stop for the departure and the return of the soloists and the conductor: Two vigorous standing ovations. As Dr. Thye acknowledges the choir, we are pleased at the increased volume and intensity of applause. 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. Yet, one would truly have to have a heart of stone to fail to appreciate such beauty. As long as civilization persists, “Messiah” will be performed and continue to inspire faith, devotion and magic. Works such as “Messiah” might well be said to reveal the presence of God’s inspiration, and of God Himself. Surely, I cannot perform "Messiah" without seeing the hand of God.

POSTSCRIPT: Four days earlier the musicians of the Master Chorale and Ft. Worthy Symphony Orchestra gathered at historic Truett Hall, a majestic, domed building at the Seminary, for the annual, free performance of “Messiah” done for the community. After the performance, dripping in sweat, my voice raw and barely functional, I stepped through the front doors onto the portico of historic Truett Hall and there, 20 feet away, was a young man actually, dramatically on his knee, holding an open wedding ring box, in mid proposal to a small, beaming brunette woman. It was a moment far better than the movies because it was unposed, unrehearsed and absolutely delightful. She nodded and he carefully slid the ring onto her slender finger, stood and they embraced with relief and abandon. I immediately broke into the opening bars of “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” Everyone around, including them, laughed and applauded. Some might call it a small miracle, others magic, but those who know “Messiah” know that such miracles are always present when and wherever it is performed.

Merry Christmas to all of our Confederate Yankee readers and Hallelujah!

Posted by MikeM at December 11, 2010 11:34 PM

Wonderful write-up!

I was always grateful to have been part of a similar group here in Milwaukee, singing JSB's Passions, Mahler, Britten, Handel, Mozart, and lots of others.

And audiences really, really, DO appreciate the work. Generally, they can't express in words exactly 'why' they appreciate it, but that's to be expected, because such works are virtually other-worldly--a foretaste, eh?

Posted by: dad29 at December 12, 2010 09:58 AM