“Messiah” is an oratorio composed by George Frederic Handel in 1741 and first performed in Dublin, Ireland. The scriptural text that accompanies the work is based on the King James Bible and tells of the coming of Jesus Christ as the savior of humankind, Christ’s passion and crucifixion, and his resurrection and ascension into heaven. It is one of the most continuously performed choral works in musical history, with most performances taking place during the Christmas or Easter seasons.
My first encounter with “Messiah” was as a young teen in the audience for a performance in Des Moines, Iowa. While the choir did not make much of an impact on me, the soprano soloist left me astonished. Between the beauty of her voice and the agility with which she sang “Rejoice,” I left feeling on top of the world. I can truly say that my passion for the singing voice began as an audience member for that performance of “Messiah.” Imagine the joy I experienced as a freshman at Drake University when I met my voice teacher for my first lesson – the soprano from my first “Messiah,” Margaret Hauptmann.
Singing “Messiah” as a collaborative experience – i.e. the audience joins in the fun – is a tradition that dates to the 1960s, when nearly 3,000 singers gathered in New York City’s Avery Fisher Hall. Called “Messiah Sing-in,” “Messiah Sing-along,” “Messiah Sing,” “Do it yourself ‘Messiah,’ or “Messiah from Scratch,” this experience takes place hundreds of times each year and across the world. Singing “Messiah” in this context is a testament to the importance of art in our lives and to the joy of singing in community. Despite the history of various kinds of sing-ins across the globe, the concept of “Messiah Sing-ins” has become a distinctly American experience.
My first “Messiah Sing-in” was led by Elaine Brown and Singing City Choir in 1984, along with dozens of guest singers from across Philadelphia. The setting was the WHYY studio. To be honest, I entered the studio as a skeptic. “How could ‘Messiah’ be performed in this manner?” Well, from the first note of the overture to the final measures of the work, singing “Amen,” I was blown away by the excitement of all the singers in the room. I was blown away by Elaine Brown who managed to describe a shift in keys from tonic to dominant (in the “Hallelujah” chorus) in a way that boggled my mind. I was blown away by the diversity of the singers – white and black, Christian and Jew… all coming together to sing this incredible work and to experience, in a communal way, its profoundly optimistic vision.
I have performed “Messiah” many times. Once with a renowned period orchestra, performing at Baroque pitch. Several times at the Kimmel Center as conductor and several times in the Academy of Music as a harpsichordist. Once as a staged production. This is one of those rare major works that one never grows weary of performing.
This Sunday at 3:00 p.m. you will have the opportunity to experience “Messiah” as a sing-in, where you will have the option of either singing with the massed choir or as an audience member. Tickets and downloadable scores are available online or at the door. If you wish to sing and own a score, please bring your score or feel free to download the score to a tablet.