Handel’s Messiah is one of my favorite parts of the Christmas Season. The first time I sang it through was in a Messiah Sing-Along. The conductor began by saying that we would make a joyful noise unto the Lord, (a line from Psalm 100) and he hoped it would be at least as joyful as it was noisy. In that spirit, he said that if we were seated by someone who was more into the noise end of things, we should remember that the point was the joy of singing, which meant a lot to me as one of the noisy. Even though I wasn’t able to read music well enough to sing the hard parts, the melismas (see this link for an example ), I knew the basic lines, and the sheer joy of trying to sing like my neighbors made up for my weaknesses.
Messiah was part of the service at the Presbyterian Church where I began singing in earnest, and I began to learn to sing the choruses well enough that the joy began to dominate the noise. Church Choirs are often told that “He who sings prays twice”, a saying attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo. It isn’t even necessary that you believe the text or the broader religion, it’s enough that the music touches something deep in you, something that your can convey with your body in a way that others can feel it too. Messiah meets that test for me. The video above is a perfect example. Helen-Jane Howells performs the soprano section of No. 20, He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd with the Messiah Chorus from Japan. Here is the whole text:
He shall feed His flock like a shepherd; and He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. (Isaiah 40:11)
Come unto Him, all ye that labour, come unto Him that are heavy laden, and He will give you rest. Take His yoke upon you, and learn of Him, for He is meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls. (Matthew 11:28-29)
Handel intended for the first part to be sung by an alto; it’s a bit lower in range. Here Howells sings in a clear, undecorated style that allows her to give full voice to the emotional power of this text.
For a choral singer, especially one raised in the Catholic Church as I was, the power of the piece emerges from the parts we sing. We’ve sung the Christmas part, the narration of the birth of Christ, and we’ve sung of his glory. Then we sit, and we, along with the non-singing listeners, are asked to contemplate that this birth isn’t about glory. The Babe in the Manger isn’t crowned with gold or wreathed in frankincense. He is Meek and Lowly of Birth, a shepherd, nothing more. We aren’t asked to lean on kings or wise men, not on the rich and powerful, not on the Lords and Ladies of Versailles, or Versailles on the Potomac, not on the secular or religious preachers of prosperity, not on the moneychangers or their banker descendants or their economist explainers and justifiers. No, we are asked to lean on a worker, one of us.
It’s here that the piece reaches into all of us, whether or not we are religious. For Christians, it is a return to the roots of the Christmas miracle, the birth of a savior who isn’t one of them, one of the rich and powerful, but one of us. For those of other religions, or no religion, this deeper message, reliance on each other, comes through. We can find comfort in knowing that others face the world and its heartaches and pains, many, as in the case of Christ, inflicted by the rich and powerful. We sing together, saying to the listener by our actions that we are gathered in each other’s arms.
I sang Messiah this year in the Harris Theater’s annual Do It Yourself Messiah, in the company of perhaps 1300 other singers and a fine orchestra with world-class soloists and one of the finest trumpet players I have ever heard. The choral singing was a bit ragged, not always precisely together, not always exact through the melismas (I sing the choral “deedle” lightly, for example), and with somewhat indistinct cutoffs. The singers are all ages, and skill levels range from adequate to pretty good, judging by where I was in the bass section. I saw a man with a 12 year old boy singing tenor, an older man with his wife who helped him up and down, and all sorts of people. I’m just another person in this group of singers, repeating a tradition of gathering to sing as people have always done. We gather together, and depend on each other to produce something beautiful.