In the summer of 1741, George Frideric Handel was presented with a libretto composed by Charles Jennens. The libretto was arranged entirely from portions of scripture, in particular the Old Testament, and became the lyrics for Handel’s famous oratorio, The Messiah.
Many stories have been told about the composition of this famous piece. It is true that he composed the entire work in the space of about three weeks, and many have taken this as a sign that Handel was divinely inspired. Though composing a work of the complexity and majesty of The Messiah in so short a time is amazing, it is not in itself proof of inspiration, as Handel—and many other composers, Mozart, for instance—was known to compose his works quickly. Such was his genius that such speed would have been expected.
As the story goes, however, his servant at the time was accustomed to taking him meals while he was working, returning to retrieve the dishes later only to find them mostly untouched. It is his account I referenced in the first line of this post. He had entered Handel’s room soon after the composer had completed the Hallelujah Chorus to find his master weeping. When asked what was wrong, Handel uttered the famous words: “I did think I saw heaven open, and saw the very face of God.”
Whether you believe this is a literal account, whether you believe Handel’s words were more metaphorical in the moment of completing awesome piece of music, or simply think he experienced a hallucination brought on by fatigue and overwork, the beauty and awesome genius of Handel’s work cannot be denied. Thought it is not at heart a Christmas oratorio—though the first section in which appear such selections of the iconic For Unto Us a Child is Born and Glory to God do tell the story of Christ’s birth—it is at Christmas when The Messiah is most often performed.
I have never sung the full work before, though I have performed certain selections such as And the Glory and the Hallelujah Chorus. This year, however, when it was announced my local church was planning to put on a production of it, I decided I would not miss it again.
Performing The Messiah has long been a tradition in the Calgary area of my church. The former conductor who put it on was a musical legend here and led various choirs for many years—my two eldest sisters sang in one of them when they lived in Calgary when I was still just a boy. In the mid 90’s, when I moved to Calgary, the yearly performance was still ongoing, though I did not participate for one reason or another. The conductor has since passed away and the yearly tradition broken, but this year they decided to revive it under the direction of his daughter.
I am glad I decided to do it this year. While I have heard the music many times in the past, I have gained a greater appreciation of it since I’ve been learning the parts I had not known before. It is not a piece for the faint of heart! Polyphonic music, as my piano teacher likes to say, is among the most difficult forms of music, and while I struggle to get both my hands going at the same time to play a piece composed by Bach, Handel is just as intricate and demanding, though in different ways. I feel fortunate I only need to sing one note at a time, though many of them are set very close to each other! The other complexity was that I have sung tenor in the past and chose to sing bass this time. Though I can still sing tenor, my voice does not last long when consistently hitting the high notes, which necessitated a change to the lower part. So I had to learn all new parts—fun!
The greatest thing I have gained from this, however, is a strengthening of my own faith. It is difficult to remain unmoved by the music, especially when choir is rising in the dramatic crescendo of the Hallelujah Chorus. I’ve included a recording of the entire oratorio, and I invite you to take some time to appreciate the majestic melodies contained within. I will warn you, however, that this is more than two and a half hours long!
One final note: the short stories anthology I referenced in my last post is scheduled to be released on the 26th, two days before Black Friday. It will be comprised of eleven short stories, four by Lelia Eye, three by my brother Colin Rowland in his publishing debut, and four by yours truly. Just a little light reading at Christmas about your favorite P&P characters!