Every season, choristers congregate between poinsettias and evergreens to lend their voices to the holiday spectacle. Among the winter-themed carols and sacred songs on concert programs, a venerable Yuletide musical tradition almost always claims a spot in the lineup: George Frederick Handel’s Messiah.
It’s been 275 years since Handel composed Messiah, yet audiences consistently gather to listen to the English-language oratorio. It’s one of the few Baroque era works that has never had to be rediscovered because it has never left the repertoire. What explains its enduring mass appeal?
In West Michigan, Messiah is just as beloved as ever.
“I think a big factor is the idea of tradition — that somehow the holidays would seem incomplete without taking in certain staple forms of entertainment. But that is only one part of the story,” said Sean Ivory, conductor of the Calvin Oratorio Society, a choir that has packed the house with Messiah for more than 80 years.
Dr. Mark Webb leads the Chamber Choir of Grand Rapids, who holds an annual Messiah sing-along, complete with a popular raffle contest to conduct the choir.
“(Experiencing Messiah) is like walking into a cathedral or any structure that’s been around for centuries which still exists for the purpose for which it was originally built,” Webb said. “You become part of a timeline that is connected to so many others.”
On the surface, the subject matter seems true to the reason for the season. But Messiah wasn’t always tied to Christmas. The piece premiered in Dublin close to Easter, and only the first part of three concerns the prophecy of Christ’s birth. The iconic “Hallelujah” chorus that is heard around the holidays is actually sourced from the end of part two, which covers Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension.
“It really makes the most sense to perform Messiah at Easter. That way, the thrust of the work would coincide with the church calendar,” Ivory said. “But Christmas has become the most logical time for Messiah — it gives plenty of time to rehearse beginning in September, and our school calendars naturally crescendo to Christmas followed by a break. It’s the perfect time to take in a large performance and a great way to end the calendar year.”
Webb said exposure and abundance of musical scores often add to the popularity of works like Messiah. However, it is also fairly accessible to the average community chorus.
“It’s sublime to hear professional musicians perform,” Webb said. “But amateur musicians have a deep-rooted response to this music, so you don’t need professional musicians for it to be great.”
Ivory agreed, explaining that, “Messiah can be performed all alone on a single concert with all of the pageantry … and is comparatively simpler to pull off” than many other potential Christmas pieces.
Logistics and accessibility aside, expert opinion (and robust audience turnout) maintains that Messiah is a masterwork of lasting value. Handel’s use of “text painting” — the musical technique of writing music that reflects the literal meaning of a song — adds to its magnetic power.
“The oratorio demonstrates a successful wedding of text and music,” said Ellen Pool, director of choral activities at Grand Valley State University. “Handel creates memorable tunes that enhance the words and clearly communicate the meaning and spirit of the text for each movement.”
Perhaps it’s the music’s vivid imagery and emotional depth that keeps musicians from going on autopilot.
“It’s like a favorite book or poem you keep re-reading to find something new and unexpected,” said Webb.
Are the repeated performances a result of limited resources? Webb said that if he had all the time and money in the world, he would bring Messiah everywhere in the community and invite people to be a part of it.
“I’d want to give unlimited access for the audience to experience it, make it available by offering transportation, and perform in unique spaces,” he said.
So Handel’s Messiah is here to stay, but if you’re looking to start a new musical tradition, try adding these compositions to your holiday playlist:
O Magnum Mysterium by Morten Lauridsen — A gorgeous yet understated choral piece set to one of the oldest Christmas-related texts.
Symphony No. 1, Winter Daydreams by Tchaikovsky — For those burned out on The Nutcracker, Duke Ellington’s big band take on the Nutcracker Suite will also do.
The Shepherd’s Carol by Bob Chilcott — A peaceful choral work for when the relentless jingles and retail madness get you down.
Tesla - Lightning in His Hand by Constantine Koukias — A well-received contemporary opera about the Electric Jesus. You can thank Tesla’s invention of the modern power distribution grid for your holiday light displays, by the way.
Selections from Wintersongs by Kitka Women’s Vocal Ensemble — From Eastern Orthodox choral works to Hebrew folk songs and solstice incantations, you’re bound to find a new Yuletide favorite in this collection.