Will you be singing Hallelujah this season?
Messiah performances are held in cities large and small at this time of year, but Handel didn’t compose it especially for Christmas. The idea and libretto for Messiah were provided by his wealthy friend and music lover Charles Jennens. Jennens put the libretto together from the King James version of the Bible and the story tells the life of Jesus, from birth to resurrection.
The premiere took place in Dublin in 1742. Audiences were so eager to hear Handel’s new work that ladies were asked to leave the hoops in their skirts at home so that more people could fit in the hall. Since then, Messiah has become one of the most frequently performed choral works in the world. It works with a cast of thousands or with just a few singers and an organ. Many organizations hold sing-along performances, too. Conductor, soloists and accompaniment are provided and the audience becomes the chorus.
If you plan on participating in a singalong Messiah or attending a local performance here are some tips and trivia to help you get more from the experience.
Trivia: There's more than one Messiah. There are several versions of Messiah because Handel tweaked the score during his lifetime by re-composing or adding numbers to suit different soloists. Modern performances of Messiah rarely include all 53 numbers because they make the work very long and the orchestra might go into overtime. Other differences between Messiahs come from the fact that others including Mozart and Sir Eugene Goosens, made their own versions by expanding the orchestra from Handel's rather sparse instrumentation.
Tip: If you’re going to a singalong Messiah, bring along some paper clips. Before the concert starts make note of where the cuts are and clip the extra pages together so you won’t miss your next entrance while frantically leafing through your score.
Trivia: English was not Handel’s first language. It was his third language. Handel was German, and was drawn to England by the popularity there of Italian opera. When the Brits grew tired of it, Handel started writing oratorios to English texts. The oratorios – un-staged operas, with no sets and costumes – proved very popular and much cheaper to produce. For the most part, Handel did a good job of setting English words to music, but there are a few gaffes in Messiah that really stick out. After you hear “all we like sheep” several times in a row, you realize how silly it sounds. The real message is the whole phrase: “all we like sheep have gone astray.”
Tip: When the soloists are singing, listen for really good examples of word painting or places where Handel matches the music perfectly to the text, such as these well-known ones: “the crooked straight,” “and I will shake” and “lift up thy voice with strength.”
Trivia: what’s a pifa? Before the soprano sings “And there were shepherds, abiding in the field” there is an instrumental introduction called Pifa. Here, the music imitates the sound of Italian country bagpipers, or pifferari. The lower strings hold a drone, and the upper strings play a lilting rhythm, establishing a gentle pastoral atmosphere for the annunciation section. It’s sometimes called Pastoral Symphony.
Tip: Pifa is about halfway through Part 1 of Messiah, so it’s a good time to sip some water or suck on a throat lozenge. Just make sure to unwrap the lozenge ahead of time.
Trivia: Da capo or no da capo? A da capo aria is a three-part form very common in Baroque music. The first part is self-contained. The second section has new words, often in a different key or contrasting mood. The third section is a repeat of the first, so the composer would write da capo, which means "from the head." There are three da capo arias in Messiah, the longest by far being “He was despisèd.” It can seem endless, so often, in singalong performances, the alto only sings the first section. The other two da capo arias, “Rejoice greatly, o daughter of Zion” and “The trumpet shall sound,” are less frequently truncated in performance.
Tip: If you're attending a Messiah performance in a church with wooden pews, you might think about bringing a cushion to sit on. Your derriere will thank you, especially during “He was despisèd.” Also, be aware that after you've heard the word "despised" sung “des-pi’-sed” so many times, it will be tempting to say it that way in other situations. Remember that, in casual conversation, the word only has two syllables.
Trivia (or perhaps this one is a tip): don’t forget to stand up. Legend has it that King George II stood up for the Hallelujah chorus at the London premiere of Messiah in 1743, although there is no evidence to prove it. Nevertheless, it is the custom to stand during the Hallelujah chorus, whether or not you are singing.
Tip: The Hallelujah chorus is a big sing. Make sure you don’t blast through the whole thing, or you'll have no voice left for Part 3. It’s not over yet. Perhaps hold back at “King of Kings, Lord of Lords,” so that you can gradually get louder and contribute to the big finish.
Watch Handel conduct the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chorus and audience in their annual sing-along Messsiah.
Trivia: what’s the hardest chorus? That’s a tough one. “His yoke is easy” has the most melismas or florid singing, and some conductors take it at the speed of light. “Since by man came death” is completely the opposite. It starts a cappella (no orchestra) and it’s very slow and tricky to keep in tune.
Tip: If you’re having trouble with the fast runs, forget about the words and just sing “ah.” Or, simply keep your mouth open and bob your head a little and no one will know you’re not singing. It’s really best to leave “Since by man” to those singers with a keen sense of pitch.
Trivia: prayer or party? The final “Amen” is wonderful, and very satisfying at the end of a long performance. Some conductors treat it quite reverently, beginning quietly in a slow tempo and gradually building in intensity. Others take a more celebratory approach, starting more quickly and broadening only at the end.
Tip: Watch the conductor and count. No matter what interpretation the conductor prefers, you run the risk of getting lost if you don’t pay close attention. All the voice parts overlap here in a contrapuntal texture, and you can’t use the words to figure out where you are because the entire text is “Amen.”
Here’s a list of singalong Messiah performances in Canada this season. If you know of others, please add them to the comments section. You can always hold a private performance and sing along with CBC Radio’s annual Messiah broadcast on Christmas Day.
Dec. 6 at 8 p.m.: presented by CAMMAC at Dominion-Chalmers United Church in Ottawa.
Dec. 8 at 2 p.m.: Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus at the Epcor Centre’s Jack Singer Concert Hall.
Dec. 18 at 7 p.m.: Civic Orchestra of Victoria at Alex Goolden Performance Hall, Victoria Conservatory.
Dec. 22 at 2 p.m.: Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra at Massey Hall in Toronto.
Dec. 22 at 2:30 p.m.: Voicescapes at Knox United Church in Calgary.
Dec. 28 at 3 p.m.: Confederation Singers at Kirk of St. James, Charlottetown.
Listen to CBC Music’s classical holidays stream.
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