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How Handel’s ‘Messiah’ became holiday tradition

Michael Christie, musical director of the Phoenix Symphony, is not what he would call a particularly religious person.

But there’s something about experiencing Handel’s “ Messiah,” Christie says, that makes him understand how that might feel.

“What really strikes me about a composer like Handel with ‘The Messiah,’ or Mozart with his ‘Requiem,’” he says, “is how these geniuses, whatever their particular religious feelings would have been, were able to so potently translate this sense of faith through music, to say it just right that you get the sense of reverence, and it touches you deeply.

“I come out of ‘The Messiah’ and think, ‘Wow. I feel devout in this moment.’ It’s like I’m converted for those couple of hours whilst it’s happening. And I’ve felt that way every time. That’s the part I find most satisfying.”

“The Messiah” has, in fact, become the highlight of the musical director’s season.

Every season.

“It’s by far my most treasured musical experience in the year,” Christie says. “For as many performances as we do, for as many years as I’ve done the piece. This is year 11 in various places.

“It takes the listener and performer to such a different place. And handled with great respect and a desire to really let it infect you, it’s a very moving experience. You can always just glide over it, sing through it and play, but if you really take the time to punctuate those moments that pull your focus toward the point that Handel’s emphasizing, it can really take your breath away.”

Cherished tradition

It’s fortunate for Christie, then, that Handel’s oratorio remains a cherished holiday tradition.

As symphony president and CEO Jim Ward says, “It has become that standard bearer for the holidays, a sort of rite of passage or tradition that needs to be checked off every season. You’ve gotta go listen to Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ just as you might have to go to a Christmas Eve service even if you don’t go to church for the rest of the year. You might not go to Symphony Hall for the rest of the year, but you’ll come out to listen to Handel’s ‘Messiah’ because it is so iconic.”

“The Messiah” wasn’t always tied specifically to Christmas.

When Handel premiered it in Dublin in 1742, it was April, much closer to Easter (if a few weeks late). And the text, compiled by Charles Jennens from Scripture, is tied as much to the events one would associate with Easter as it is to the events surrounding Christmas.

“It’s the thing that confounds me a little bit about ‘The Messiah,’” Christie says. “You go through the prophecy of Jesus, his death and then his Resurrection. And then, we do it at Christmas.”

Christie laughs, then says, “I can’t tell you how many times I have said to orchestra managers, ‘You know, we really should be doing this at Easter.’ And they’re kind of like, ‘Oh, yeah. Sure. Nice little boy. Go away.’”

As symphony chorus master Tom Bookhout has come to understand it, Handel conceived “The Messiah” as a piece about redemption.

The more Christmas-themed first movement, which deals more with the prophecies of Christ’s birth, Bookhout says, “is really the buildup to the Easter events of the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and the celebration in the second movement.”

“So conceived as a piece about redemption, it would make the most sense to perform it at Easter time.”

That second movement, which covers the passion and death of Christ, is Christie’s favorite part of “The Messiah.”

“It’s a very human rendering of Jesus,” he says. “When thinking of Jesus and this whole concept of man and deity, we often forget the man part, in terms of actually experiencing grief. The second part of ‘The Messiah’ intensely reminds us of what it would be like to be ostracized, or what it would have been like for a man like Jesus. That’s the most powerful section. It reminds me every time, no matter how many times I’ve done the piece, just how profound it is. And then, the third part is more about redemption.”

U.S. set precedent

“The Messiah” was occasionally done around the Christmas holidays in Europe in the decades following that first performance, Bookhout says. But it was in America that “The Messiah” came to be more closely linked to Christmas.

“There were some choral societies in the early to mid-1800s in the United States that just established a tradition of doing it on Christmas,” Bookhout says. “The Handel and Haydn Society in Boston, in 1818, gave a complete performance. I think it was the first complete performance in the U.S. And that was done on Christmas Day. So now you have a tradition. Major city, major choir. And from that point on, people start getting used to hearing it at Christmas.”

There are also practical considerations.

“How many pieces of music are there that are popular to listen to at Easter?” Bookhout asks. “It’s really not a season that people go out to concerts like they do at Christmas. I mean, if it didn’t work as a Christmas piece also, it might have disappeared.”

But far from disappearing, “The Messiah” has gone on to thrive. As Christie says, “It’s probably the most frequently performed work with chorus and orchestra in Western music. So it’s one of those things that’s really stood the test of time.” And it’s done so for several reasons.

Asked why this is so much better-known today than Handel’s other oratorios and operas, Christie says, “The ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, that just blows your hair back. It’s so exciting and so powerful, and there are many other arias in the piece that have really sunk deep into our cultural awareness, whereas a lot of the other oratorios and operas that he wrote, as beautiful as they are, and as sad as I am that they’re not more often performed, they just don’t seem to have those hit tracks, so to speak, that when people hear it, they’re like ‘That’s the one,’ and they keep coming back to hear it again and again.

“He really hit it right in ‘The Messiah.’ I mean, there’s this great, enormous amen fugue at the end, which is so breathtaking. It’s the kind of thing where you just hold your chair because you’re so excited, you want to jump out of your seat.”

Bookhout says part of the reason it’s popular now is that it was popular then.

“They were turning people away who couldn’t get tickets to the first performance,” Bookhout says. “And it immediately got repeat performances. He was world-famous in his 20s. By the time he wrote ‘Messiah,’ he was in his 50s. They were waiting on the next thing Handel wrote.

“And just the drama of it. Every solo seems to lead inevitably to the big choruses. And these are some of the best choruses he wrote. It’s like a movie that you don’t mind watching over and over because you find something new in it every time. Or that rare book that you’ll read more than once.”

It doesn’t hurt that it’s also a very accessible piece of music.

“Bach was alive at the same time as Handel,” Bookhout says. “And he never got super-popular like that in his life because his music is kind of academic. Handel knew how to make that big choral thing happen. He would bring the solo in at the right time. He’d have the orchestra do the right things at the right time. He wrote truly classical music, but it was really likable, even the first time you heard it.”

And then, of course, there’s Jennens’ text.

“To say why the text of ‘The Messiah’ has remained so popular over all these years,” Bookhout says, “would be also to explain why the Bible has remained so popular.

“But then he struck this balance where he really doesn’t talk about the details of the birth, the death, the Resurrection. There’s no line that says, ‘She laid the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger.’ You get this sense that it’s inevitable from all the prophecies they sing about in the beginning. And then, the angels arrive with a chorus of ‘Glory to God.’ There’s just a little bit of separation that allows people beyond the Christian tradition to love this piece, too, because then the themes become peace and goodwill and hope and optimism.”



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