You don’t know jack about Handel’s Messiah (probably)

You know how sometimes you think you know something, but then you discover that you didn’t really know it, you just thought you did?

Is that too vague? Here’s an example:

I always thought I knew that It’s a Wonderful Life was a good movie. I was under the vague impression that I’d seen it a million times, and that yeah, of course, it’s a great movie: Christmas classic..heartwarming…life-affirming…all that jazz.

And then a few years ago I actually sat down and watched the movie from start to finish. By the time the credits rolled I was discretely wiping shamefully unmanly tears from my eyes, and I had realized two things: 1) I had never actually seen the complete film, at least not within memory, and, 2) It’s a Wonderful Life is a much, much, much, better movie than I thought I knew it was.

That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about. It happens all the time: there’s some thing which is so pervasive, so widely known, that we start to believe we are intimately familiar with it, when in fact all we possess is a caricature largely unenriched by personal experience.

Three nights ago I stood in the sanctuary of George St. United Church in Peterborough in a black suit I had borrowed at the last minute from a friend, and a black bowtie my wife had bought me at the last minute. The occasion was both the opening night of the Peterborough Singer’s annual Handel’s Messiah concert, and my very first concert singing with the choir.

Now, maybe you’re thinking the same thing I was thinking when I joined the Singers the other month: Ah, yes, Handel’s Messiah. Great piece of music. Christmas classic…heartwarming…life-affirming…and all that jazz.

Yup. I thought I knew the Messiah was good.

Wrong. I didn’t. Much like you, I thought I knew the Messiah was good because I had heard the Hallelujah chorus sung in a seemingly endless number of food courts and clothing stores in the ubiquitous Youtube “flash mob” videos. And after seeing so many closeups of the shocked and delighted faces of cherubic children and happy holiday shoppers, much like you I became convinced that, yeah, I know the Halleljuah chorus, and, heck yeah, it’s really good.

But here’s the thing: You don’t know the Hallelujah chorus. You have no idea how good it is. And you don’t know jack about Handel’s Messiah. When it comes to the Messiah, you’re a complete ignoramus, just like I was a month ago.

Ok, that might not be true across the board (and my apologies to the cultured exceptions). But for most of you, it is. Like me, you’ve picked up scattered bits and pieces of the Messiah over the years. You’ve run across a handful of the more famous arias or choruses (most of which you don’t even know belong to the Messiah) while listening to your local classical station in your car or at work and, of course, you’ve watched the flash mob videos.

Shadows and dust, my friends! Shadows and dust!

The Peterborough Singers at Roy Thompson Hall

The fact is, unless you have either, 1) Attended a live performance by a competent choir of the complete (or mostly complete) Messiah, or 2) Sat and listened to the complete (or mostly complete) Messiah on a decent sound system, the Messiah is to you as the North Star appears to us earth-dwellers – glittering and beautiful, but only a very distant approximation of the mind-bogglingly gargantuan flaming ball of hyper-heated fusion-burning gas that the North Star really is.

At least that’s how I felt on Sunday as our one hundred (yes, one hundred!) voice choir launched into the Messiah – like all these years I had been sitting in a lawnchair sipping on a beer and gazing at a pretty star in the sky, and suddenly I was transported thousands of light years to the surface of that star, and learned what this whole star thing is really about.

The Messiah isn’t just good, it’s sublime. It’s magnificent. It’s stupendous. For me it was…dare I say…life changing?

Of course, we had been practicing the Messiah for a few weeks before the concert. But during that time my nose was buried so deep in the score, trying desperately to mostly sight-read the tenor part, and failing miserably, that I didn’t have much time to notice just how good it was. Occasionally, by the end of the practice my voice would be so raw after singing my 100th high G for the night that I would just give up and listen, and in those moments I was moved.

But last Sunday was my first time ever hearing the whole thing put together, in its proper order, without pauses or repetitions, and with all the solo arias included. And it was also the first time I felt comfortable enough with my parts (with some exceptions) to simply enjoy the experience of singing.

And my heart soared. I wish I could do it every night. For days I have been unable to shake my desire to hear, just one more time, the entire choir and the timpani and the organ and the trumpets shake the church to its foundations as we burst into that most magnificent and moving final chorus: WORTHY IS THE LAMB THAT WAS SLAIN.”

But there is one small blessing. Earlier this year I inherited a very good quality sound system from my great uncle Peter Smit (God rest his soul!). And do you think it has been used this week? You bet. But though I have the critic-approved recording with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir conducted by Peter Davis, and though my speakers can wake our neighbors half a mile away, it’s simply not the same as being in the very midst of the choir and helping, in however small a way, to bring this masterpiece to life.

No, two concerts wasn’t enough. Let’s do it again.

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About John Jalsevac

I am a Master's student in theology at the University of Toronto.
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7 Responses to You don’t know jack about Handel’s Messiah (probably)

  1. Sylvia says:

    Went to the Messiah at the Kennedy Center last Saturday. Yes.

    • Romulus says:

      Wow. You totally win. That must’ve been awesome.

      • Sylvia says:

        It was. And coincidentally, the song that was running in my head all morning is “He Trusted in God, Let Him Deliver Him.”

        Last year, I was blessed to be able to perform with the Metropolitan Chorus for the performance/singalong of (most of) the Messiah, but I have to say it wasn’t until this year that the full awesomeness of the work sank in. Well done, Handel!!

      • Sylvia says:

        I should say, it wasn’t until SITTING IN THE AUDIENCE this year, and hearing a much better choir/orchestra perform it. 😉

  2. krista says:

    What a fabulous tribute to Handel , the Peterborough Singers , the soloists, the musicians and of course the hundreds in the audience who expierenced it with you! Bravo!

  3. Sarah B. says:

    That is what I imagine it must feel like to sing “Messiah.” At a fairly young age, my father took a couple of my siblings and I to hear it sung by the Seattle Symphony Choral, and in the ensuing years I have heard them perform it live several times, and once my father joined a local chorale just for the chance to sing bass in it. I have loved it from the beginning, and it only moves me more as time goes on. For me, the most moving chorus when performed live (so that you can feel the vibrations in your bones) is “Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs.” Now I feel the one thing left for me is to find the opportunity to sing it, since the choir I’m in now only sings liturgical music.

    I was so happy you posted this today, as it was only this morning during my commute that I suddenly felt the need to listen to “Messiah,” and popped in my CD. As “Comfort Ye” began, there came a certain peace and interior calm, a refocusing, and an affirmation that goodness and beauty do still exist.

  4. Melody Thomas says:

    Wonderful piece of writing, John, and so glad you enjoyed your first concert with the Singers! 🙂

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