by Monica Umstaedt Rossman, Minister of Music
I’ve been thinking about the spring concert we were planning for the first weekend in May which, sadly, is one of the losses we must take in stride due to the pandemic. Two of the pieces from that program were to be choruses from Handel’s Messiah: “Since by Man Came Death” and “Hallelujah.” Our spring concert is always one of the highlights of our season. We absolutely love having our friends from Westminster’s vibrant community join us in our beautiful and very resonant music room for a delightful, interactive evening of music-making!
I know our choir would have enjoyed singing these together and performing them for you! But instead of that, I issued a fun challenge to our choir in the form of a couple of YouTube sing-alongs. The link below takes you to a wonderful performance of “Since by Man Came Death,” where singers can follow along on the screen and sing their parts together with some spectacular musicians. You’ll see the many other choruses from Messiah also available (see the sidebar), and I hope you’ll jump to “Hallelujah” and any others you are interested in as well.
If you own a Messiah score, you may want to use it; but the beauty here is that you don’t need a score. Simply follow along with the score on your screen. If you have never sung in a choir, consider trying it now. You never know…you may find a fun new hobby during these times of being mostly confined at home.
Singing along here serves a threefold purpose: (1) whether or not you are a singer, singing is lots of good fun, with no strings attached, and with no hidden agendas; (2) exercising your God-given voice is a good thing – it keeps your voice strong, active, and engaged; (3) singing also exercises your brain and helps you realize quite directly the amazing healing power of great music/art. As you sing along (or even as you simply listen), imagine yourself singing with your friends in our choir and with music lovers around the world.
Some general background information about Handel’s Messiah helps put this delightful exercise in context. Handel’s musical genius is legendary, of course, but one aspect of his genius bears special attention, in my opinion, given our current crisis: Handel was infinitely flexible and adaptable to circumstance. Ever pragmatic, Handel found ways around any and all musical obstacles. There is a lesson in that for our times, I believe.
Here are a few fun facts about Handel’s Messiah. Enjoy!
- The German/British composer G. F. Handel (b. Halle in 1685; d. London in 1759) wrote Messiah [“the” is not included in the title] in 24 days (August 22-September 14, 1741); while remarkable and somewhat unbelievable, this wasn’t unusual for Handel (or for many other composers—they moved quickly toward specific and often very practical goals).
- Messiah was first performed in Dublin on April 13, 1742, and received its London premiere one year later.
- The text is by Charles Jennens and is taken from the King James Bible and Book of Common Prayer.
- Handel was well-known and much revered in his lifetime. Before Messiah’s composition, he was known primarily as a composer of Italian operas. He had lived in England since 1712 and turned to the writing of English oratorios in the 1730s, mostly in response to a change in musical/theatrical tastes. This is but one example of Handel’s pragmatic flexibility.
- Messiah is in three parts: The first deals with Isaiah’s prophecies and takes us through Advent and Christmas themes; the second covers Christ’s Passion, ending with the Hallelujah Chorus; and the third covers the Resurrection and Christ’s reign in glory, ending with the powerful Worthy is the Lamb/Amen chorus.
- Messiah was originally written for modest vocal and instrumental forces, with optional settings for many of the individual pieces. It was originally scored for 2 trumpets, timpani, 2 oboes, 2 violins, a viola, and basso continuo.
- Handel made many revisions to his score even before Messiah’s premiere. Between 1742 and 1754, he continued to revise and re-compose individual movements, sometimes to suit the requirements of particular singers. This again shows the pragmatic flexibility I was referring to earlier: Handel never met a problem he couldn’t solve.
- Messiah was first published in 1767, eight years after Handel’s death.
- After Handel’s death, Messiah was continually adapted for performance on a much larger scale, often with gigantic orchestral and choral forces. While this remains true today, much more emphasis is currently placed on historically informed performance, namely, performances on a much smaller scale and closer to what Handel originally had in mind. There is much for musicologists and performers to argue about, and this will definitely continue!
No matter the details of a Messiah performance, Handel’s amazing work remains one of the most beloved and often performed works of all time. It has inspired millions and continues to have an extremely devoted following. This is unlikely to change. Take heart in the powerful gift of music and allow yourself to be inspired by Handel’s resilience and excellence.
May God bless and keep each one of you!