Even in its simplest form, it takes a small village to stage Handel’s Messiah. The masterwork from George Fredric Handel requires, at least, a few dozen singers, plus musicians. Then there are the audiences. Men in formal wear, women in evergreen reindeer sweaters and little girls in red, velvet dresses jam themselves into venues ranging from small churches to sold-out concert halls.
“It is kind of a phenomenon. I think Handel would be stunned if he was alive today to see this because it had a relatively so, so beginning,” said Richard Crosby, a music historian at Eastern Kentucky University. “For most people it’s just part of their holiday season. It’s like turkey on Thanksgiving. It doesn’t seem quite complete at Christmas without hearing the Messiah, or at least the Hallelujah Chorus.”
Crosby believes they’re often attracted by traditions that pre-date Benjamin Franklin’s stove. Perhaps the best known tradition comes during the Hallelujah Chorus, when the audience stands.
According to myth, King George the Second was the first to rise. Some say it was out of reverence. But, perhaps, as he neared the end of the three hour performance, University of Kentucky Music Professor Jefferson Johnson says, His Majesty was simply tired of sitting.
“Well who knows?" said Johnson. "The King stands, everyone else stands. Maybe the horse that he rode in on, maybe his saddle was a little rough on his derriere, who knows what the reason would be? To me, it doesn’t really matter why it happened originally, but it was obviously a very good idea.”
There’s also a tradition of big brass. When Handel’s masterwork premiered in Dublin, there were few trumpets. They were only added in large numbers after his death. Johnson, who directs the Lexington Singers, says also added was the really big chorus.
“It’s a piece that has always worked with smaller forces as well as larger forces," Johnson said. "There are accounts a couple of dozen years after Handel’s death of hundreds of people performing in the chorus and orchestra of Messiahs.”
First the British, then the Germans and Italians, fell in love with the big sound. And, when they migrated to America, Professor Crosby says America’s blind belief that “bigger is always better” kicked-in.
“German immigrants to America had huge choral societies, like in Cincinnati, the May Festival Chorus," Crosby said. "So it became popular for groups like that to do things like that as well.”
This choral “arms race” eventually reached a pinnacle with performances like those offered by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Given all those singers and musicians, it’s definitely a complex operation, not something Crosby would care to organize.
“There’s so much to juggle," said Crosby. "We have soloists doing these things. You have choral numbers and the choral numbers are quite difficult, especially with that type of baroque singing. Getting folks to sing that correctly and make it intelligible. The larger a choir you have, the more difficult it is to make it a clean performance, so it just doesn’t come out like mud. So they have to be very disciplined in order to do that.”
But while the sound expanded, the piece itself contracted. The original Messiah, which traces the story of Christ from the Old Testament Prophets to his resurrection, measures over three hours. Today, the average performance is an hour long and only offers passages on the Nativity and the Hallelujah Chorus.
“I’m very fond of the Christmas portion and I like the Hallelujah Chorus,” said Johnson. "What would it be without the Hallelujah Chorus? And, I like to end performances with the even bigger chorus, Worthy is the Lamb, and the Amen that follows it. You know, from a choral conductor’s point of view, it’s hard to beat Handel as a composer of choral music. He really knew how to write for choirs.”
In recent decades, music historians have rediscovered the methods used by Handel in staging the very first Messiah. And, increasingly, choral directors have applied those methods taking the Messiah back to small choruses accompanied only by the instruments available to Handel.
“Okay now we know, through the study of music history and performance practice, we know how it was done in 1741," said Johnson. "Now with our resources we have in the 21st century, how do we choose to do Messiah? And so that now, we see two types of performances that I think have integrity.”
So, for example, Johnson’s Lexington Singers will offer the big Messiah while the Lexington Philharmonic will perform the piece as Handel heard it.
The Messiah’s music tests the best performers and arrangers. It’s an organizational nightmare for choral directors and conductors. Its audiences find themselves stuffed into overcrowded halls. Yet, despite age and complexity, the Messiah also spawns a community dedicated to a pleasing and transcending act of creativity. During this darkest, coldest time of the year, such a community is probably what we need.