Sunday, December 6, 2009

And all flesh shall see it together.

A page of George Frederic Handel’s
autograph draft score of Messiah, 1741.
The Granger Collection, New York

In my high-school years as an alto (or second soprano, or tenor, as needed), our a cappella choir (or ockapella, as we liked to say) began learning/practicing Handel's Messiah in early November. We were an earnest group, with an instructor -- Mr. McManus -- who inspired us to hit every note with accuracy and passion. This was our most ambitious project each year -- pity the poor parents with no interest in classical vocal music and multiple vociferous children! (My mother included: I think her love for classical music made an exit sometime around 1975, and there was more to come.) But the group of perhaps sixty of us loved every trilled minute of it. We could be serious and dramatic and show off our honed expertise with long runs of notes and vibrato and barely a chance for a breath. (Not unlike that sentence.) All of us hailed from working-class families (Boeing) and most of us had our religious origins in some form of Christianity. It was the 1970's -- religious music was commonplace in the public schools. We felt important when we sang Messiah. We were important, and we sang like salvation was at hand. Our voices overflowed that school cafeteria as if it were the most prestigious European concert hall, drowning out the monotone of vending machines which lined an entire wall. No ho-hum Carols for us!

As long as Mr. McManus was the vocal instructor, all alumni were invited to return for the Christmas concert, and join the group on the risers. Two of my sisters and I did this several years in a row -- fun! And then somewhere along the line we stopped going, and I don't remember why. Maybe we felt that we had outgrown it. I know I had long outgrown my suburban hometown of Renton. But I miss that December ritual, along with my singing voice, which cut out when my boys were still quite little. (Gone, gone for good.)

Handel would turn over (and over and over) in his grave if he could hear The Hallelujah Chorus muzak-ized all over the planet. (But who knows -- maybe he'd enjoy it.) It's even available as a cell-phone ring tone. Seems to me that, as a society, all we like sheep have gone astray.

Still, it makes for some great listening on a cold Sunday afternoon, cranked up pretty damn loud on the stereo.

God help us.
And: hallelujah.


  1. If alive today ... and Handel got royalties for his music he would say, "Sing, play and squawk as much as you want! Brittany, Muzak or NFL football? I don't care!" Côte d'Azur here I come!

  2. I haven't sung the Messiah since my church choir did it when I was in high school--except sometimes when I'm waiting for the bus and no one else is at the stop (his yoke is easy...).

    But Garfield High School has (probably one of many) an annual sing-along. This year: Friday, at 7:30.

  3. Ah yes! If you're a singer (bass section for me), 'tis the season to cringe. You can tell a chorister by the wince on their face when you pass them in the mall when something from Messiah comes on the sound system. It got to be Thanksgiving time and we would all look at each other and groan, "Here it comes!"

    Which is why I love Bach's Christmas Oratorio so much. And the pre-Baroque carols from the medieval and Renaissance eras. For years I sang in a choir where the choirmaster had the idea that Hándel needed a break; everybody else was doing the Messiah, so we'd do something else. After 20 years of bellowing "For the Lord God omnipotent reighneth", I finally got a break, and it was beautiful!

  4. Bill, yeah, too bad Handel is 2.5 centuries too late.

    Joannie -- at the bus stop! This makes me giggle.

    Roy, I don't know the Back Oratorio...I'll have to see if Citizen K. has it stashed somewhere in his extensive music collection. And I too love the early carols.

  5. This post filled me with happy nostalgia, T. Clear. So perfectly timed, too.

    Like you, I was an alto in the choir at school and sang The Messiah with full-hearted gusto, reverence and passion. (Linking up with singers from our all-girls 'brother school' was part of the excitement!) I would love to link up with a choir again some day, to perform the Messiah and Bach's B minor mass. Aaaah. Such glorious music!

    This evening, in our South Island harbourside city of Dunedin, the New Zealand Symphony & City choir will be performing The Messiah. Guess who'll be in the audience!

  6. Claire, I bet you hummed along!