Listen at Christmas: Handel

Handel was baptized in Halle, in this Marktkirche (Market Church), and took organ lessons on this organ.

I enjoyed gathering interesting Christmas music for many December posts* last year, and since there are many (thousand) amazing Christmas songs I haven’t yet highlighted, there are a lot to choose from for more musical posts this time around.

I start with George Frideric Handel because El Guapo and I began our musical preparations for the season with a Messiah Sing on Monday, and it was an unusual experience. I’ve been to dozens of such events in the past few decades, but this was one like no other.

Unlike a more traditional concert, a Messiah Sing is a hybrid, combining performances by professionals with audience participation. The usual format features musicians that have rehearsed together, as well as trained soloists and a skilled conductor, and together they provide the musical critical mass that can keep the whole enterprise coherent when a few hundred community members lift their variously talented voices in singing notoriously complicated music.

As one of those singers, I know parts of many of the choruses pretty well, but also recognize where I’m uncertain on this or that entrance, or where I fail, again, to manage the vocal gymnastics of one of those seemingly endless runs, like this one:

So the amateur singers are happily making mistakes, and the members of the orchestra, though often very talented, may sound a little rough around the edges. It’s not unusual for the air “The Trumpet Shall Sound” to feature a number of squawking noises that fail to invoke heavenly grandeur. But in my experience, the accompaniment to the singing manages to keep everyone going in more or less the right direction. Nobody’s expecting perfection, and everybody’s overlooking their own and others’ mistakes.

Monday’s format differed from other events I have attended in that it was billed both as a Sing-along and as a Play-along–you could come a little early with your instrument, pull up a chair and a music stand, and get involved in the instrumental side of the oratorio. I assume that this larger degree of expected variation might be behind the decision to have the orchestra accompanying only the choruses. The many solos were accompanied by the organ alone.

Glad for an excuse to show you some cool images of organs. This is the organ in the Catedral de la Almudena in Madrid.

A few bars into the first vocal number, El Guapo and I looked at each other uncertainly–this was sounding a little odd. A few more bars and it seemed like things were not going according to plan. The soloist was giving us the “Comfort Ye My People” that we know and love, but the organ wasn’t always in the same measure of music with him. And then the whole thing began to slide downward; we found ourselves involuntarily grimacing, clutching the edges of our chairs, and craning our necks to see if something had befallen the organist. As the oratorio progressed I pondered on the difficulty facing the soloists. Unless they had been very unlucky in their careers, this was likely to be the most painful solo experience they’d ever had.

When you think about Handel’s Messiah, the many choruses might come first to mind, but there are A LOT of solos, and each one had us on tenterhooks, wondering how bad it was going to be, and if any of the soloists were going to be unable to make it to the end. I also wondered, and still wonder, just what was up with the organist. I know that playing Handel’s Messiah well requires advanced skills and many hours of preparation. I’m sure that the role of organist was not available for someone who wanted to come that evening and “play along.” I really wonder if the highly qualified organist contracted for the event had been struck down by some dread disease at the last minute, or was being held hostage on a plane that had been hijacked somewhere.

Among the famous people I know is one of the organists that plays for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Linda Margetts. This organ has 7,708 pipes.

As painful as it was to listen to the unpredictable notes* and erratic pacing coming from the organ, and as much as my heart went out to the suffering soloists, I was very much aware of what agony the organist must have been in. No one likes to do an inadequate job in a performance, even when alone. To have one’s musical train wreck take six or seven hundred people off the rails with you has got to be any musician’s nightmare.

Impressively, all of the soloists made it through their pieces, the orchestra did a fine job, the conductors waved their arms and batons enthusiastically through the end of the Hallelujah Chorus, and we were able to let go of the tension we had accumulated. There was clapping, there were bows, and then we and hundreds of others made our way out of the building. I know a woman who is part of the choral group that sponsored the event, and when I see her next I may make delicate inquiries. I hope someone got the organist flowers, and I hope she never has to endure (or cause others to endure) a trial like that again.

As you might imagine, we came away from the event without having had our annual Handel appetite satisfied. I don’t know of another sing-along in our area, so perhaps we’ll look instead for a really good recording. Several years ago Limonada gave me one for Christmas, but I don’t have it in Utah with me.

The recording below starts out at a faster tempo than I’m used to, but what I’ve heard so far I’ve liked, so I invite you to give it a try. After all, the title on YouTube says it’s the best performance, and the internet is never wrong. Do you have a favorite performance of Messiah to recommend?



*I do not mean to be harsh; I have an idea of just how difficult the organist’s task was. I assume that in other circumstances she is very competent. It’s likely that though she simply failed to play a lot of what is written in the score, most of the notes she did play were the right ones, and most of them were probably played at or near the right time. But close, as they say, only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. As I sat tensely listening to passages and trying to recognize in them the music I love, I gained a new appreciation for just how much musicians rely on one another during a performance, and just how much of a liability it is for them if notes they count on don’t appear when they need them, or if wrong notes turn up to throw them off.



[Images: Johan Bakker, yours truly, Wikipedia, wearemormons,]

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