A couple of weeks ago, I listened and watched the entire oratorio of Handel’s “Messiah” presented at the Washington Cathedral in Washington, D.C. It had been quite a while since I had heard the lesser-known pieces. If you don’t think you’ve ever heard of the “Messiah”, you have probably heard of one of the songs in it: the “Hallelujah Chorus”. The music took me back to Messiahs of other years.
During the middle of my time in high school, my father became the pastor of a small rural Lutheran church in northwestern Ohio. There, we lived at least ten miles from a town of any size. In the fall of my senior year and the fall following my graduation, he and I joined 150 other singers of the regionally famous Mennonite Choral Society in Berne, Indiana for practices and a performance of the Messiah just before Christmas. I don’t know how he found out about it or even if any auditions were required. I enjoyed singing some pieces from the Messiah at my previous high school the year before, so that could have been the catalyst. He had a beautiful tenor voice, and I sang soprano.
Once every week night, he and I headed out on dark and sometimes snowy or icy farm roads over the state line to Indiana to attend practices fifteen miles away. He was a taciturn man unless there were subjects to discuss that he was passionate about, so I don’t remember our conversations on the road – or even if there were any. I just remember the pride that I, and I’m sure he, felt about being part of such a wonderful performance. Knowing my dad, he probably was very happy that I did it with him.
The choir had performed the Messiah every year since 1893. Soloists were flown in from Chicago, which was Very Big Stuff to a small-town Ohio girl like me. A grand, beautiful pipe organ and small orchestra accompanied us.
The Messiah takes words from the Bible and tells the story of the nativity and its prophecy, as well as the crucifixion of Christ and victory over death. Even if you do not believe, the music itself is dramatic, heart-stopping, and absolutely beautiful. Both the oratorio and another piece, “Water Music Suite 1”, put Handel firmly in the list of my favorite composers. George Frederic Handel was originally German but he adopted London as his home. At age 56 he composed and had the very first Messiah performance not in London but in Dublin, Ireland on April 13, 1742. Not Christmas time? No, it was originally written as an Easter Oratorio.
How the Messiah came into being at all is an interesting story. The words had been compiled and edited by a man named Charles Jennens, who gave it to his friend Handel to put into music. The well-known story is that Handel completed it in 24 days without eating or sleeping much. After the composition of the Messiah, Handel was going through a difficult time. Overworked and laden with debt, he accepted an invitation from Lord Devonshire for a ten-month stay in Dublin. He brought with him the musical score he had worked on while living in London, and the rest is history.
While we were in Dublin this summer, I looked for signs that Handel was here, and I found them. Dubliners are still proud to have hosted the first performance, all these hundreds of years later.
Before it could ever happen, Handel needed an organ to work the oratorio through, and it is reputed that St. Michan’s Church of Dublin graciously let him use theirs. The church has a long and storied history, which you can Google if you’d like. St. Michan’s is now a bustling restaurant and bar called “The Church”, and we had dinner there in what was formerly the balcony. The keyboard to the organ sits in the little alcove below the pipes. In converting to a restaurant, renovations were thoughtfully and respectfully made to keep some of the original architecture and furnishings in place.
It is still the same organ Handel played. The restaurant would like to renovate the organ. If you have $100,000 to spare, you can help them out!
The inaugural Messiah was played at the then-new Musick Hall on Fishamble Street. The original entryway is all that remains; behind it is an apartment complex.
I also found a plaque nearby that commemorates the occasion.
A open-air Messiah is performed near these gates in the Temple Bar area every year on April 13. This past year it was presented by Our Lady’s Choral Society and the Dublin Handelian Orchestra. The streets are packed and people sing along with the music.
I came full circle with Handel when we later visited London and Westminster Abbey. He is buried there, and a life-size sculpture on the wall near his grave is a memorial to him.
There have been other Messiahs over the years since the two years in Berne, Indiana. A few years ago, I sang with the church choir that I was a member of for its Christmas Eve service. My oldest sang the soprano solos, and the torch was passed. Over the years, my voice dropped from soprano to alto, and now a frog has moved into my throat, so I no longer sing publicly. But no performance has ever been the same to me as those in the Mennonite Church long ago.
I looked up the choir on YouTube, and found a recording of the Hallelujah Chorus from the 2015 performance. It was years after mine, but all was exactly as I remembered. I have placed a link here for your enjoyment.
Here’s an interesting piece of trivia: why does the audience stand up when the Hallelujah chorus starts? The very first audience in the recital hall on Fishamble Street did not. Almost a year later, the Messiah performed in London, and King George II was in attendance. He stood up when the Hallelujah chorus began. It is believed that he was so moved that he stood to show his reverence. Although maybe he was just stretching his legs, who knows? Because the king stood, the audience had to stand too, and audiences have done that ever since.
It’s time for me to have some eggnog, a Christmas cookie, and another listen to the Hallelujah chorus. Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! See you again in 2023.
Next time – a return to the RV’ing life in New Mexico