If seasonal blessings may be counted in terms of Handel's "Messiahs," surely Utah is one of the most blessed spots in Christiandom.
With ever-increasing fervor, in ever-increasing numbers, Utahns celebrate the return of the Christmas season by listening to, or singing the immortal words of the scriptures, set to Handel's equally immortal music.And despite the remonstrances of the learned, people find their way back to "Messiah" every year. Jaded though they may be in January, by late November their appetite for "Messiah" has invariably, almost instinctively revived - perhaps most directly stimulated by the "Messiah" sing-in, a new wrinkle in the last 20 years, and a phenomenon without equal in the musical world.
As the accompanying schedule shows, there are "Messiahs" of every size and degree in these parts. (What more may we expect in the year 1992, when the world will reverberate to the 250th anniversary of "Messiah"?)
Why "Messiah"? What is there about it that moved people that were contemporaneous with its composer, and still moves those who hear and perform it today? How can we stomach so many "Messiah" perfomances?
A comparison between the comments of Handel's contemporaries and those who lead "Messiah" productions in northern Utah, sheds some light on the work's charisma, showing that attitudes have changed very little over the centuries.
Our panel of Utah experts includes:
Edgar Thompson, director of the Utah Symphony Chorus, who will conduct the annual Deseret News Messiah Sing-In in Symphony Hall tonight; and Bonnie Winterton, who assists Thompson with the Symphony Chorus, and conducts the South Davis Community Chorus.
John Marlowe Nielson, who for 25 years prepared the Utah Oratorio Society to sing "Messiah," and Morris Lee, who has succeeded him.
Lois Johnson, conductor of the Utah Valley Choral Society, and Ralph Laycock, who will conduct their sing-in in the Provo Tabernacle.
Will Kesling, conductor of the Northern Utah Choral Society, Ruth Funk, conductor of the Parley's Stake Sing-In, and Layne Wright, conductor of the Draper Stake "Messiah."
"On Tuesday last Mr. Handel's Sacred Grand Oratorio, `The Messiah,' was performed at the New Musick-Hall in Fishamble-street; the best Judges allowed it to be the finest piece of music that was ever heard. Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crouded Audience. (Faulkner's "Dublin Journal," April 1742).
" `Messiah' may have equals in the world, but there is nothing greater. It is a social phenomenon, there is nothing like it. It's my favorite piece, I never tire of it." Thompson.
" `Messiah' is the best-known classical work going. It has survived. It is performed more in a year than any other thing, and it is a work of genius. It has joy, it has profundity, it's a perfect wedding of text and music." Kesling
"This is my second season preparing the Utah Oratorio Society for its annual performance, and I have observed two things about `Messiah.' First, I am continually amazed at how timeless and fresh it is today, just as much so as 200 years ago, and second, it is perfectly written. I wouldn't change a note. Each time I take it up I gain new insights. It is a magnificent work of art and I never grow tired of it. There are always new things to discover." Lee
"As Mr. Handel in his oratorios greatly excells all other Composers I am acquainted with, So in the famous one, called `The Messiah' he seems to have excell'd himself. The whole is beyond any thing I had a notion of till I read and heard it. It seems to be a species of Musick different from any other." (Dr. Edward Synge, Bishop of Elphin, Dublin, April 1742).
" `Messiah' is a phenomenon. You can't hurt it, and if it's done well, it's especially wonderful. It's a universal piece of music, and it's like Bach, you can't destroy it. Handel survives.
"Over a lifetime, I have come to know Handel as a good friend. He spent most of his early life in opera, but none of that has lasted like `Messiah.' He was an undisputed genius, prolific in his writing, but profound. He has taught me a lot, by talking to me through his music." Nielson
"Why `Messiah'? Because of tradition. When I think about picking it up each year I think, `Oh, not again,' but when I get into it I just adore it. This piece has a built-in lift that everyone experiences. So many people have told me that they don't really feel Christmas is here until they sing `Messiah.' " Winterton
"And without controversy, great is the mystery of Godliness: God was manifested in the Flesh, justified by the Spirit, seen of Angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory. In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." (Summary of "Messiah" by Charles Jennens, author of the Word-Book).
"His music does talk, you know. His announcements (like the birth of Christ) are wonderful. His anticipation of the Savior's birth is luminous. Even the death of the Savior leaves room for such hope, exultation and comfort for man, through his resurrection. And the great fugue he weaves into the massive counterpoint of the Amen is magnificent." Nielson.
"This music is so familiar and so loved, with a message that most of us fully believe in, ranging from the poignant to the exuberant." Laycock
"I have no doubt `Messiah' is inspired, and it's at its best at Easter. Handel's first performance was in the Easter season, and the Easter portion is the crux of the second half. The first part is prediction, the second Christ's mission, and the third is a big ode celebrating the defeat of death. `Messiah' is really Baroque opera at its dramatic best." Kesling
"I like singing `Messiah' at the end of the season like we do, for it climaxes the true spirit of Christmas." Funk
"I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself." (Handel himself, of his Hallelujah Chorus).
"The whole sing-in idea is a sort of spontaneous explosion, which I think began when people were asked to rise and join in singing the Hallelujah Chorus. They thought, why not do it all, be a participant rather than an auditor. People don't need to be stingy with `Messiah.' They can sing it several times in a season if they want to; it's not something that grows by being hoarded." Funk
"The Hallelujah (Chorus) and the Amen are glorious. When I am conducting the sing-in with the whole tabernacle full, as it usually is, everyone going full voice and I can just ride aloft on the stream of air." Laycock
" `Messiah' stays fresh for me, perhaps because of the great emotional experience I have conducting the sing-in. The first time, I was very apprehensive. But when that massive audience broke into song, I broke out in goose flesh. And whenever I look down and see a block of singers from my A Cappella Choir at the University, I feel very proud that these young people are experiencing the great heart-to-heart communication of this music." Thompson
"The Oratorios thrive abundantly - for my part they give me an idea of heaven, where everybody is to sing whether they have voices or not." (Horace Walpole, 1743).
" `Messiah' is the granddaddy of all oratorios and sacred choral works. It's educational for high school kids, and exposes them painlessly to the whole form." Johnson
"People think they `know' `Messiah' because they can get through it, they rise to the challenge and they fall in love with this work." Kesling
"Somehow people have the feeling that they know `Messiah.' They will come and sing it when they won't sing others. I like the format we have in Davis County, with the first night a sing-in, the second a concert. I am toying with the notion of sing-ins on other great choral works. People like what they know, and over a period of years they could come to know other works as well as this. I don't care about failures; sometimes a failure is the beginning of something wonderful!" Winterton
"People are overwhelmed when they sing `Messiah' for the first time. They may never have read a score before, they say, imagine me singing `Messiah'! We have extra scores that we lend them. Funk
"What can we offer more in Handel's praise? Since his Messiah gain'd him groves of Bays. . .None but the Great Messiah could inflame, And raise his Soul to so sublime a Theme. . . . (Laurence White in Faulkner's "Dublin Journal," April 1742.)
"Nothing prepares a community better for Christmas, nor revives the Christmas spirit better than `Messiah.' Every year we catch the spirit of Christmas this way and I love to provide an opportunity for people in the south end of the valley to use their talents." Wright
"That people keep coming back to sing `Messiah' with the Utah Oratorio Society year after year - we have 250 this year - speaks for itself. We have a good many young singers this year, too." Lee