I know, I know – George Frederick Handel’s famous work is actually an Oratorio. (A musical would require lots of period costumes and at least one big dance number! Now imagine combining that with Mel Gibson’s gratuitously blood-letting Passion of the Christ. No, let’s not.)
This was the time of year, probably forty years ago, that I first heard Messiah performed. More about that presently. Contrary to common practice, when versions of the Messiah compete with one another in the city, the work was not written for Christmas. Only the first part of the composition has to do with the birth of Jesus. The second and third parts focus on the stories of his death, resurrection, sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, and then the dream of a final resurrection of all believers. (Think of the overwhelming conclusion Worthy is the Lamb and Amen.) Handel’s masterpiece was first performed in Dublin on April 13, 1742, 19 days after Easter.
The very next year a lasting tradition was born when, as the singing of the Hallelujah Chorus began during a performance on March 23, 1743, King George II rose to his feet. Speculation as to why have ranged from His Majesty needing to stretch his legs, his mistaking the opening notes for the national anthem, to his simply being so overwhelmed with the music that he felt compelled to stand. Nevertheless people the world over still rise at the sounding of the first notes of the Hallelujah Chorus.
It was spring, before Easter, somewhere in the early 1970s that I first heard Messiah. Hardly a stellar performance, I’ve only enjoyed better and better renditions since. The venue was a United Church in Cornwall, an industrial place of about 50,000 just across the Ontario border from our home in (Salaberry-de-)Valleyfield, Quebec. I don’t remember what sort of orchestra was involved, if any, and I would only be guessing if I called the choir The Seaway Valley Chorus, a combined choir from every church from Brockville to Lancaster.
A family friend, Robert, was minister at this church and he and his wife, Marilyn, and their children were back and forth with us three or four times each year. Unfortunately this was one of the last times we saw Marilyn, who died of cancer following a brain tumour.
Something eerily similar comes to mind as I listen to I know that my Redeemer liveth which comes right after Hallelujah. As organist and choir director of a very small United Church in Valleyfield, Mom was fortunate to have two very talented soloists. One of them, Martha, a contralto, sang this piece on a couple of Easter occasions before she died of cancer.
The sum-total of the music, combined with a great performance – either live or recorded – completely eclipses whatever bittersweet associations I have with the work from my early days of learning about it.