How did Handel’s mighty oratorio Messiah come to be a Christmas staple?
It is really a piece intended for Lent and Easter. The Christmas portion is only one of three sections, the others being the story of the passion and crucifixion and mankind’s struggle with acceptance. It ends with the promise of redemption through the sacrifice of Jesus.
I think that it is because most Protestants grew up with hearing the excerpted Christmas portion sung at every protestant church, large and small, sometime in November or December of every year since childhood. It has the advantage of being just about 30 minutes, gives all three of the local voice types a solo, doesn’t really stress the chorus, and can be done with only a small string orchestra or just an organ.
Of course it has to be changed around a little. The final chorus of the Christmas portion, “His yoke is easy,” is almost never sung. Instead, the Hallelujah chorus is inserted to bring the proceeding to a thrilling conclusion, even though it was not written to celebrate the birth of Christ. The text comes from the Book of Revelations and it is about the eventual triumph of God over all the kingdoms on the earth, which is not so PC to say out loud these days:
And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.
Unsuspecting folks going to a full performance are stunned to learn that they are in for somewhere in the neighborhood of two-and-a-half hours of basically unfamiliar music mixed with old favorites. It can be a trial.
Sing-along Messiahs are another phenomenon that the oratorio has spawned. Usually, the work is drastically cut down or just the Christmas part, plus Hallelujah, is presented. In this situation, the work is completely removed from the musical realm and becomes a public event, or happening, much like the audience participation in a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show―sans the camp, that is.
The warbling on the coloratura parts of the choruses can be shocking, depending on who is sitting nearby. I have heard some that sound like an ambulance passing outside.
The yearly performance at the church I attended as a child was an ordeal to be endured. With no more than 20 dedicated souls in the choir, none trained voices, and Mrs. Pierce at the mighty Wurlitzer, it was a brave effort doomed to failure. Every church has a few singers who think they can sing, although their ears hear something completely different than the rest of the world. Thus, competition is usually fierce for the solo parts. In our case, it was really sad. Even the best of the bunch were not capable of making it though the solo parts, try as they may. We all “Rejoiced Greatly” when it was over.
Sitting though this yearly Baroque hazing was akin to elementary school violin recitals. You just zoned out, as if in a root canal procedure, and applauded the effort at the end―no matter what had come before. The saving grace was that everyone had tried very hard to make some magic.
Bedsides, every once in a while, Handel’s brilliance would shine through and you would understand all over again the ability of music to reach the soul, no matter how it was delivered.
Gregory Sullivan Isaacs will not be attending any Messiahs this year. But if you're interested, the two major ones in town are:
7:30 p.m. Dec. 6 by Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and Southwestern Seminary Master Chorale at Bass Performance Hall
Dec. 21-23 by Dallas Bach Society
- 7 p.m. Dec. 21 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Arlington
- 8 p.m. Dec. 22 at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Dallas (Sing-along)
- 7 p.m. Dec. 23 at Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas