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Messiah!

As we mentioned earlier, Handel came to Britain to earn a living. He became a British subject, and wrote the anthem (Zadok the Priest), which has been played at every coronation ceremony since the coronation of George II.

Often in debt, Handel worked hard. His servant recalled bringing him food while he was working feverishly to complete Messiah, only to find, when he returned to carry the plate away, that Handel hadn't stopped to eat. Messiah received its first performance on 13 April 1742 in Dublin. The proceeds went to support local hospitals.

Messiah is immensely popular in America, and is usually performed during Advent as a pre-Christmas concert. The first year I ever heard it I was squeezed into an overflow crowd in a cathedral nave. I had the thrill of jumping to my feet with a thousand others when we heard the Hallelujah chorus at the end of Part II. (The 200-year-old tradition supposedly began when George II rose to his feet as the first triumphant notes of the Hallelujah Chorus rang out, and the whole audience stood with him.) A quieter, but in some ways more thrilling, part was yet to come. It was a solo aria, sung by the soprano. In years since I have heard countertenors sing this role, but like Handel I prefer a soprano. On this night, the soprano appeared tense, and gripped a handkerchief, not in Pavarotti's dramatic style, but as if she really might need it to blow her nose.

If you are one of the soloists you have to be able to stand and hit your notes when you've been sitting silently for a quarter of an hour or longer in a large hall listening to the chorus. Gazing at the pale soprano clutching her handkerchief, I had the feeling she ought to be in bed, taking care of her cold. I had no idea what was coming when she stood in Part III, her dress glittering, her throat bare.

The words and the song floated into the air, pure and heartbreakingly beautiful. "I know that my Redeemer liveth. . ."

Handel came as a stranger to Britain, and helped to create the British musical tradition. He was a genius, but it was much more than his musical genius that he gave. He gave his love.

Below is a video of the Bethany College Choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus. Bethany is a small college with 900 students in West Virginia. The visual is not very good, but the choir pours its heart into the Chorus.

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