It’s Handel’s Messiah time again

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Handel’s Messiah has “Easter” written all over it for me. It must have been a family thing growing up in a Catholic household, hearing the Hallelujah Chorus blaring from the speakers on Easter morning, a sound as embedded in my memory as the crinkle of the cellophane covering the Easter peeps (that I always admired but never ate – way too much marshmallow). This, amid the clamor of five sugar-energized kids, a baby and two teens, Mom’s voice calling over the din to not eat too much chocolate before breakfast or church, which, of course, I proceeded to do.

Ahh, Easter. And the much-loved Messiah. The years pass, my relationship with the Catholic Church waxes and wanes, my appetite for handfuls of chocolate and marshmallow before 9:00am is gone. I now live 2000 miles from that home base. Listening to Messiah, however, never fails to put me right back in that powerful place, where high art meets spirituality, making life seem timeless, utterly rich, even miraculous, and never more so than on Easter morning.

Here’s the whole shebang, or at least two hours and thirty-seven minutes of it. Give it a listen. Music starts at 3m40, following a BBC introduction.

 I know many people consider Handel’s Messiah to be a Christmas-season classic. The San Francisco Symphony presents it as such, every December. And it’s true that Part I is very Advent, prophesizing the arrival of a messiah, chronicling Jesus’ birth, etcetera. It’s Part II that’s considered the Easter [and Lenten] portion. But here’s a confession: aside from the Hallelujah Chorus, I never really listened to the rest of the work, certainly not the complete version. (Overhearing the “Hallelujah” side of the record set as a kid as I raced around on a sugar buzz doesn’t count.) Even though I’ve sung in choirs for half my life. Seventeen years ago, however, my husband and I left the Bay Area for the Santa Cruz Mountains, and I began to commute annually back to the old neighborhood to sing Easter Sunday Mass with my old choir. The ride took an hour and ten minutes each way; perfect amount of time to listen to a CD. Of course it needed to be Handel’s Messiah. 

For the next dozen years, that was my tradition. My husband and young son stayed at home and I’d leave the house early, as the world was just waking up. It was sleepy and pristine, gorgeous scenery of redwoods, coastal mountains, with the Pacific Ocean glinting in the distance to the west. Listening to Messiah was nothing short of sublime. And just as I pulled up to the church parking lot, there it was: the Hallelujah Chorus. Perfect.

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Messiah is an oratorio, which is sort of like an opera without the acting, grand pantomiming and expensive sets, and tells a sacred story, not a racy one. Handel composed over twenty oratorios. He’d composed plenty of operas (final tally: forty), but they were more expensive to produce and the popularity of his opera works had begun fading. In 1741 he decided to take a break from it all, and leave his London base for a sabbatical in Ireland. It was here that he composed Messiah, in just twenty-four days. It premiered in Dublin on April 13, 1742, during Easter season. (Aha! Even he considered it more an Easter work than an Advent one.)

Want to learn more interesting tidbits about Handel and Messiah? Stay tuned; I’m working on that blog as we speak, and will post the link ASAP.

I love this list on Amazon, created by “Zendok the Priest,” which offers a brief description of thirty-four top Messiah recording selections, among the many, many options available. Check ’em out. http://www.amazon.com/survey-Handels-Messiah-recordings/lm/RSMEWTU9ZPIQM

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8 thoughts on “It’s Handel’s Messiah time again

  1. MarySue Hermes

    What fun to hear about memories from 4116! It was nice also to get some of the background on Handel’s beautiful piece. 🙂

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      MarySue – I had an odd trip down memory lane, too, writing this. Remembering the way the Easter baskets for kids were hidden, and in the oddest places. Was that our parents’ way of combining the tradition of Easter egg hunt and Easter baskets? I sure bought into it all.

      I, too, enjoyed learning more about Handel and his Messiah. I think it’s so cool that he was broke, with debt, but agreed to offer the first performance as a benefit, to help out others in debtors’ prison. And I found it sad yet touching that he died on Good Friday.

      That music has been in my head (okay, and in my car’s CD player) all week long. Nice. : )

      Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  2. Karen A

    I also tend to view this piece as a Christmas piece. I played a lot of it back in 2008 for our orchestra’s 75th anniversary celebration, and there are a ton of Messiah sing alongs that I could play the violin for, if I had time, every December. My mother told me that her (Presbyterian) church choir sang the Hallelujah chorus on Easter, and it does make sense. But I just don’t think I’d be able to decouple it from Christmas in my mind at this point.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Karen – it IS hard to separate the oratorio from the season one is used to hearing it in. I imagine it would be like going to celebrate Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere. Even though CA gets warm weather sometimes on Christmas, it very much wouldn’t be the longest night of the year. That would feel so strange, having it one of the lightest nights of the year.

      Someone from my old choir days once commented how much fun the Messiah sing-alongs were. I dunno. It just sounds like a recipe for chaos. But, hey, maybe at some point down the road, you and I will have time to try out those “not enough time” events. (It’s called being retired with no kids left in the house… Which, right now, is unimaginable.)

      Reply
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  5. Annette

    Beautifully written, Terez. It’s nice to share the memory of an Easter time messiah when much of the world associates it with Christmas time.

    Did I ever tell you I performed the hallelujah chorus at St Martin In The Field in London? And when I was there last year I learned that a photograph of that impromptu amateur “sing with the choir” event is on the front of one of their pamphlets. And there I am… What a treat!

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Annette – I remember seeing the brochure with your pic in it. So very cool! And, while I appreciated it at the time, I doubly appreciate now, having written these blogs on Handel and his Messiah. And I just read your other comment, that he played the organ in St. Martin in The Field, at its opening service. Triply cool!

      Reply

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