For some reason a piece of what should rightly be considered Easter music has become an annual Christmas tradition around the world. For many people the season would not seem right without taking in a performance of Handel’s Messiah.
I think we have four recordings of G.F. Handel’s most famous oratorio on compact disc. We had at least as many on vinyl before that. Every December my wife plays it over and over and over. She never gets tired of hearing it, though after the hundredth time through I could use a break.
Performances of Messiah vary. We usually attend the one put on annually at Canada’s National Arts Centre, which is as you might suppose, very professionally done with professional orchestra, choir and soloists. This year though we decided to take in a different one that included children’s choirs – one of my wife’s students was singing. It too was very well done.
I’m not a fan of children’s choirs, so it was nice that the Sparrows Children’s Choir was augmented by a couple of adult choirs. The show was good to excellent, though I tend to be forgiving in these things. They performed not Messiah in its entirety, but most of the hits (such as the “Hallelujah Chorus” and “For Unto Us A Child Is Born.” The soloists ranged from very good to very good for their age (I don’t expect an eight-year-old to have the voice of an adult). As the conductor is also the conductor of the other groups (and the symphony) who were participating, it was a well-integrated performance. I’m not sure how I felt though about the between song commentary and introductions of the different vocalists. There is something to be said about just letting the music flow, but I suppose most of the audience were family or friends of those in the choirs.
Some years we have also attended “Come Sing Messiah,” which is a different style of performance. It has professional musicians and soloists, but anyone who wants can be part of the chorus – just show up a couple of hours before show time and bring your libretto. Hundreds of people do. It is a relatively easy piece to sing, at least the choral portions – I think I could do it without rehearsal; I have heard it so many times.
So why has this piece of music endured? Why is it so much a part of Christmas? The music is excellent, some of it quite catchy. The lyrics, straight from the Bible, convey a powerful and timeless message of hope. Not only the hope of Christmas, but even more the hope of Easter.
This is musical comfort food. That was brought home to me in 1983 when I spent Christmas working in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, far from friends and family. That Christmas morning the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation played that year’s version of Messiah from the National Arts Centre. What made it special for me is that my brother was in the choir that year, and was right by one of the microphones – I had no problem picking out his voice.
It’s probably too late for you to find a live performance of Messiah this Christmas season – but you should be thinking now about attending in 2015.