Monday, December 13, 2010
The tradition is now more than a quarter of a millennium old. Today, the YouTube videos go viral as the music rings out in shopping malls across America and the familiar strains Handel’s Messiah breaks unexpectedly into the noisy food court; surprised patrons stand to their feet and cast off inhibition and join in the exuberant singing. Pocket cameras appear capturing a serendipitous holiday moment that will be the topic of conversation for the whole season.
George Frederick Handel drew from the King James English Bible in 1741. He wrote the masterpiece in less than a month (twenty four days, to be precise). The oratorio, taken as a whole, is a summary of the entire Bible, from Creation and the first Prophecies of Salvation through an Anointed One, to Messiah’s appearance and Eternal Reign. That this frontal declaration of biblical monotheism would resonate so clearly and broadly and universally in our increasingly secular age speaks volumes about the spiritual appetite of the masses.
Maybe one of the greatest gifts of the Chicago years, those formative days in my development when singing occupied a considerable portion of my routine each week, my professors and mentors put me in long rehearsals, handing me a thick, dog-eared paperback book, well worn, containing the entire text of Handel’s complete Messiah. Night after night, we would work through the sections. Our world was divided into four equal groups: sopranos, altos, tenors and baritone/bass. We learned pitch and harmony, tempo, crescendo, decrescendo and fortissimo. Some of the passages would be tedious, repetitive and complicated. Others would take us to the heights, ascending well above our post-adolescent imaginations. A piano would bang out the parts until we mastered them, and then the four sections of the room would come together in harmony.
We prepared for the first performance in the Great Hall, now dressed in formal black tie and gown. Behind us, a massive pipe organ. Before us, a full orchestra. Soloists took their chairs on the stage. The seats in the massive auditorium filled, none vacant. The bitterly cold winter wind blew snow flurries outside. Candles glowed across the stage.
That first performance sealed it. Up until now, the various pieces of the magnum opus seemed disparate, scattered. But as the oratorio unfolded, filling the massive sanctuary with sound, the story took shape. I had known nothing of the tradition. Handel’s celebration of the fulfilled promise, the appearance and victory of the Messiah releases a vibrant Hallelujah! as an exclamation. And as we launched that selection, without fanfare, the people rose to their feet until the entire multitude stood in wonderment and praise. The full impact of The Hallelujah Chorus (as many of us call it now) closed in, and I could barely sing my baritone part as the organ rattled the windows and the strings and woodwinds and brass and percussion joined in the revealed mystery of the arts – a moment of transcendence that can only be a taste of the eternal.
I knew nothing of the London performance and King George II who started the whole thing. There have been many theories postulated as to why it was that the King stood. No one knows for sure. But when I saw it that first time as I performed on those bleachers in my black tie, a nineteen year old surrounded by fellow baritones, animated tenors, energized altos and soaring sopranos, I was moved beyond measure. And since that day, it has only felt right to stand at the sound of that melody.
For three years back then, we repeated that tradition. Every year. We rehearsed. Donned the tuxedo. Performed. That dog-eared book might otherwise have remained on the shelf. I would only know Handel’s work as a traditional holiday musical, like all the rest. Instead, those lyrics and phrasing, the harmonies and now the message lodge somewhere deep in my memory, all come together like a complex tapestry worth the contemplation, long and deep.
And when this weekend with a collection cherished friends we filed into the magnificent Segerstrom Hall at the Performing Arts Center (a wondrous blend of modern and traditional, acoustically exquisite), and on cue, the choir appeared in black tie and gown and the orchestra took its place before the massive pipe organ and harpsichord and timpani, the soloists in white tie and tails, women in spectacular gowns, from the start it all came back. The timing. The four vocal groups, all singing in sync from their dog-eared books. And those sopranos reaching for the heavens. Pitch perfect.
And I thought about the gift given to me at age nineteen. At the time, I was unaware of its priceless value. But now as I muse over every strain, and the years gone by, and the crowds in the mall standing in joyous rapture, Hallelujah!, and those King James allusions, Comfort Ye, Since by Man Came Death, By Man Came Also the Resurrection of the Dead, I Know that My Redeemer Liveth and Finally, the Amen Chorus.
So this Christmas season, many decades after those first tedious rehearsals, the power of Handel’s work remains alive.
Remains alive in me.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010
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