Words are wanting to describe the exquisite delight it afforded to the admiring crouded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.
The Dublin Journal – April 1742.
An unknown reviewer on the first performance of the Handel-Jennens* Messiah at The Great Music Hall, Fishamble Street in Dublin.
The last week or two has been very strange and frankly unsettling. On the broad scale the world situation is troubling and on a personal scale the hateful views of a few people I thought I knew and the death of a friend under sad circumstances has made for a disturbing time. It’s been a long time since I felt this unsettled and more so because I realize there is little I can do about it.
But the last two Saturdays I’ve spent a few hours along with 300 or more other people practicing to conspire “to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear”. It’s in preparation for the 39 annual Come Sing Messiah in Ottawa and the 28th year that the Canadian Amateur Musicians Association (CAMMAC) has produced the performances. And it’s the 25th year that Alan Thomas has rehearsed the choruses for the three Saturdays before and played the organ for the performance itself. Alan’s rehearsals are a delight: he has wonderful stories – often repeats but then good stories often are – and always gives insights into the incredible complexity of Handel’s chorus writing (the one thing I know is that he must have really hated tenors!). And the glorious thing is that you are there for the joy of singing – if you make mistakes, so be it; you get lost in the Amen Chorus – and name me one chorister who hasn’t! – well just open and close your mouth until you find your place again, one of those Amens has come in at the right time. In case this makes it sound all very amateur – it is but in the old and best sense of the word: amateur = a lover of; a person attached to a particular pursuit, study, or science in a non-professional or unpaid manner. Most of the singers are members of choral groups from around the city; others, like myself and my friend Steve who got me involved last year, are there for the pure joy of singing some of the greatest music ever written.
The performance is always held on the first Friday in December – this year the 4th – at Dominion-Chalmers United Church. The arrangement is a bit unusual – the professional pick-up orchestra and young professional soloists are on the raised sanctuary. The chorus – normally 600-700 people are seated in the ground floor chancel and the sold-out audience (and all 300 tickets were sold three weeks ago) are in the surrounding balconies. As well as his many other engagements conductor Louis Lavigueur directs Come Sing Messiah in Montréal and Ottawa and has done for many years. And Louis does not treat the mammoth chorus as amateurs – we are there to give a performance and he expects, and gets, the best of his performers. This link will take you to the performance of the Hallelujah Chorus back in 2011 for a taste of what it all sounds like.
This is the second year I’ve done this – unfortunately Steve wasn’t able to take part this year – and this year it has seemed a bit more meaningful. The remarkable combination of Handel’s music and Charles Jennsen’s text have assured me that despite what may be going on around me there is as much to ravish Heart and Ear in this remarkable work as that unnamed reviewer found back in 1742.
*It is interesting to note that after years of being regarded as nothing more than a cobbling together of texts from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer Charles Jennens (right in a chalk drawing by Giles Hussey) text has now been recognized as a powerful reflection of the theology of the time. The fact is that Jennens was the force behind its creation; Handel having, on more than one occasion, in writing to his friend called it “your Messiah” . There are innumerable, and lengthy, sources available addressing Jennens part in the creation of Messiah however I found this article a good summation what went into giving life to what is, perhaps, the most famous oratorio in the English speaking world.