I've been holding off on posting about Messiah for the last two weeks. But a few recent posts about this work on other blogs, particularly a post which refers to Messiah "as the piece I'm most heartily sick of above all others", I felt compelled to stand up for those of us who are most certainly not sick of the work, and could sing it, conduct it, listen to it any day, any time of year, any time of day.
Now, if there should be someone who is sick of Messiah, you'd think I'd be a good candidate. I've been a part of some kind of Messiah production since I was eight years old, that's almost thirty years. I've sung three of four vocal parts (and I'm sure I know all the notes for all four of them, but just don't have the range to ever be a bass), and I've conducted it a few times (at least one time where I wasn't in my own house, and had to be sober) and rehearsed it countless times. Yet, I never tire from it.
This week on CBC2's morning show Music and Company, the weekly cage match, where the host puts up two works in a "match" and the winner is decided by listeners, has challenged Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker against Handel's Messiah. You can read the CBC2 blog post, and responses here, at the time of this posting, a winner had not been declared yet, and from reading the responses, it's anyone's guess. Responses range from arguing that Messiah is in fact an Easter oratorio, or that Nutcracker just isn't a "great" piece of music. Both arguments are valid, however, based on the music alone, there is no contest in my mind. Messiah is the clear cut winner.
Why is it then that some people, mostly choristers and instrumentalists, are so passionate about their dislike of Messiah? Is it really Handel's fault? Unlikely.
Here are the factors I think play a role in the general dislike of Messiah for those who are in the business. These are especially true in "large" choruses. First and foremost are the choir personalities. There's the "I don't need the score - I have it memorized, so I'm not going to write anything down" and thereby get every new marking wrong (like releases). There's the sudden surge of new Christmas Sweaters, ties and flashy broach pins at choir rehearsals which are enough to make anyone a little sick of the commercialism surrounding the whole event. There's the one who complains the whole time because "it's not the way he/she would have done it", or "it's not the way we did it last year". There's the large bass section who just can't seem to "purify" fast enough. Imagine the intimidation factor of being a new chorister to the choir who has never sung Messiah before on that first rehearsal? Wouldn't that be enough to make you want to quit? Then there are the conductors, usually guest conductors, who are trying to make Messiah "new" to them, and the reluctant choristers who won't conform to change. There are the overused scores which are so marked up that you can't tell if the conductor wants a dotted rhythm or not in bar 12 of "Behold the Lamb of God". There's the conductor that year who insists the first chorus "and the Glory" is in three, instead of one to a bar. The list goes on and on.
So, after all this, why is it that I love Messiah, and could never tire from it? Simple - it's a great work. Yes, GREAT work. Once you get past all the stuff in the above paragraph and actually concentrate on the work itself, the incredible writing, the inspiring texts, the work as a whole, it is indisputable that the piece is fantastic! I didn't realize this until a bit later in life though. I was in my mid-twenties, with already about fifteen years of Messiah under my belt, and a colleague of mine suggested I buy a new recording, one by Paul McCreesh with the Gabrieli Consort. It was mid-July, far removed from Christmas, or Easter - definitely not your usual Messiah listening to month. After the great folks at BMG had delivered my copy, I decided to listen to a bit of it. A little over two and a half hours later, I had finished listening to the whole thing. There were moments that I was reduced to tears, moments where I was laughing (the pifa is the fastest "pifa" I've ever heard) and moments was I was so excited by the performance I couldn't sit still (the string playing during "refiners fire" and "all they that see him" is a highlight for sure). It was then that I realized what a great work it truly is, and also the fact that it doesn't require a "season" at all. The meaning of the work spreads its way through the entire season. Part I, yes, Christmas. Part II, for sure, Lent and Easter. But Part III? Redemption, Revelations, the "moral of the story" as it were - there is no season for this - it's the POINT OF TELLING THE WHOLE STORY - worth listening to any day of the year.
Since that moment about ten years ago, I've learned to approach every Messiah performance with a new energy. Finding out new things about it, and new meanings. Meanings which change depending on my current life situation or world situations.
So, if you are in the group of people who detest the work, then ask yourself why it is you do. If it's the over performance factor, then maybe sit out a year or two, revisit it in the middle of the summer with your favourite recording, or buy a new recording which brings out something different for you. But don't "hate it" just because you feel you have to.
Anyhow, I have to get the tree up, I think I'll put on a good recording (I think know which one) and then I have to get ready for tonight. My wife and I are taking our nephew out to see Nutcracker.