Holiday Nostalgia—Handel’s Messiah
Most of us have strong nostalgic memories evoked by holiday music. For some, it is hearing a beloved carol or taking in a performance of a classic such as the Nutcracker. Often it reminds us of a time when we might have danced as a child or sung in school or church pageants. For musicians hearing certain musical works around the holidays also brings back memories of times we’ve performed or heard them. For myself, the holidays have become defined by singing Handel’s beloved “Messiah” for the past four years. Back then, I was at the end of a difficult year after the death of my mother. I had always loved choral music and singing, but was told that I ‘wasn’t good enough,’ to sing seriously and so I never it pursued it and concentrated on piano lessons. A close friend suggested that I audition to sing in the Wisconsin Chamber Choir’s performance of “Messiah” along with her that year. I was taken aback as it had never occurred to me do so and wasn’t even sure I could learn the entire piece in time. However, I desperately needed something to fill my holiday season and ease my sad heart, so I auditioned and to much to my surprise was invited to join. My music reading skills allowed my to learn and sing the glorious piece and I fell in love again with choral music and singing. That led to many more singing opportunities and now three years later, I sing in several community choruses and have taken voice for the past two. All because I agreed to sing in the Messiah chorus.
Messiah was written over 275 years ago and has been a beloved fixture in cities all
over the country as a Christmas staple. However, it was never intended to be a Christmas piece as it was originally composed for an Easter charity event in Dublin. It was an instant success and the initial performance so popular and crowded that women had to remove their hoop skirts and men their swords to fit all the attendees. It soon spread to England and became a Lenten pilgrimage destination by Victorian times. Eventually, it became a Christmas event in both England and the United States by the 20th century. The reasons for this aren’t completely known, but likely involve a combination of factors including the lack of oratorio works specifically for Christmas and also the thought that as a charity event, people were more likely to be generous around the Christmas holidays. Also, the Christmas season is longer than the week preceding Easter and provided more opportunities to fit in the performance.
So, the Messiah has become a favorite around the world and for many isn’t Christmas without hearing it. The tradition of standing for the Hallelujah chorus modeled after King George II who walked in late causing his subjects to rise at his arrival continues today. Many amateur choirs partake in “sing-it-yourself’ performances practicing all year for the high point of their season. For professional choristers or soloists, it continues to be a joy to sing. For myself, it isn’t Christmas until I’ve sung the last Amen on the last chorus.
Handel’s Messiah will be performed by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and Festival Choir of Madison along with soloists Sarah Lawrence, soprano; Jamie Van Eyck, mezzo-soprano; Called Metts, tenor; Peter Van De Graaff, Friday, December 8th, 7:00 pm at Blackhawk Church on Madison’s far-west side. Tickets can be purchased through the WCO website: https:// wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/messiah/