Three things in life are certain: death, taxes, and December performances of Handel’s Messiah.
The world’s most famous oratorio appears every holiday season, with hundreds if not thousands of productions by professional and amateur groups around the world. Messiah has been going strong for 275 years and remains among the most-performed works in the classical repertoire. But what makes it so special is hard to define.
“Honestly, I’ve been grappling with the same question,’’ said Doreen Rao, visiting artistic director for the Master Chorale’s 2017-18 season. As music director of the Buffalo Master Chorale and artistic director of the Chicago Chamber Choir, Rao has been involved in her share of Messiahs, and no two are the same.
“Personally, I think it’s because everyone who performs it takes complete and passionate ownership of the music,’’ she said.
Messiah is an oratorio, a large-scale work based on sacred text, but without sets, costumes, or action. Drawing from the Old and New Testaments, Handel designed it in three sweeping sections: Prophecy and Fulfillment, Suffering, and Redemption. Although religious, its message remains universal, and Handel intended it for the concert hall, not the church.
“It’s certainly Biblical in its text but it’s a concert piece, more like an opera,’’ Rao added. “It’s more a form of theater, and that may be why it’s so popular.’’
Handel also wrote Messiah in English, rather than German or Italian, which appealed to the middle class in England and Ireland, where the work first appeared back in the mid-1700s. This also made it easy to digest in the United States, and choral societies quickly got on the Messiah bandwagon.
Musically, the score is a hodgepodge of styles, including Italian (recitative), French (overture), English (anthem), and German (fugal) influences. Handel was, after all, a man of the world.
He also poured his soul into composing Messiah at a difficult period in his life. Several of his Italian operas at the time had been duds, costing him enough to nearly be thrown into debtor’s prison. So he did what any good composer would do: He locked himself in a room and pouted awhile, then began writing in a burst of white-hot inspiration. Trance-like, he finished the score in a remarkable 24 days, going for long periods without food or sleep.
After completing the Hallelujah chorus, the story goes that he exclaimed, “I did think I saw heaven open, and saw the very face of God.” Evidence of this inspiration can be seen on the facsimile of the original score: Notes become increasingly large and spaced apart, as if written in a fury.
The full score is a handful, to say the least, with 53 movements. Many holiday productions cut it in half, but keep the favorites, such as Comfort Ye My People, For Unto Us A Child Is Born, and the Hallelujah chorus. The Florida Orchestra is all in, performing the nearly complete version at about 2.5 hours.
This brings us to the business of standing during that famous chorus, a tradition said to have begun in 1743, when King George II rose from his seat, enthralled by the beauty of the music. Not wanting to offend the king, the audience also stood – or so the story goes.
“There’s really no viable research to suggest it happened, and scholars say it’s a myth,’’ Rao said. “But if you want to stand because it moves you, then you should stand. I think that’s good, because people are yearning to do things together, to celebrate things together. So if standing during the Hallelujah chorus offers you that experience, go for it.’’