It’s rumored that upon finishing the “Messiah,” composer George Handel told friends he had “seen the face of God.”
An apocryphal tale perhaps, but Handel’s masterpiece is every bit divine. Clyde Thompson, director of the Central Oregon Mastersingers, a select choir made up of 43 voices, believes it’s true.
“It’s just such a flow of inspiration, it’s just hard to fathom,” said Thompson. “(Handel) had all his chops. He was a top- notch composer, and he just got visited.”
Tonight and Saturday evening, Thompson will lead the Mastersingers as they perform much of the “Messiah” in concert (see “If You Go”), including one of the most celebrated choruses in music, the “Hallelujah” chorus.
In its entirety, the “Messiah” runs approximately two and a half hours, said Thompson. His Mastersingers will perform an hour and three quarters of it.
A holiday favorite, the “Messiah” is interesting both for its origins and its traditions.
Born in Germany, Handel (1685-1759) was a child prodigy but studied law as a youth to please his father. According to a biography of Handel in “The Essential Canon of Classical Music” by David Dubal, Handel dropped his legal studies soon after enrolling at the University of Halle and moved to Hamburg, where he took a position as the second violinist in the city’s opera orchestra. His father wasn’t around to comment on the career change, as he had since passed away.
Handel soon began composing operas and eventually landed in Italy, where his works were widely accepted. In 1710, he was lured back to Germany to become the kapellmeister (a person in charge of making music) to the court of Hanover, but the appointment didn’t last long. An invitation arrived beckoning Handel to come write operas for a prominent theater in London, and Handel accepted.
Handel had success in London with his operas, but tastes were starting to change, said Thompson. Italian language operas were losing favor and Handel switched to writing oratorios, symphonic and choral works that were operatic in origin but without ostentatious sets and costumes. Religion was a popular theme for oratorios, a fact reflected in Handel’s compositions from the era: “Saul,” “Solomon,” “Ester” and “Israel in Egypt” to name a few.
In 1741, Handel came across a libretto by Charles Jennens, a literary scholar and editor of Shakespeare. The “little book” (libretto in Italian) told the story of Jesus Christ, from prophesy to revelation. Handel set the piece to music, working nonstop for 23 days. It was upon finally leaving his home after its conclusion that it’s rumored he is to have made his comment about seeing the face of God, said Thompson.
“He wrote the piece in 23 days; it’s just phenomenal,” said Thompson. “There are 52 separate movements. That’s better than two movements a day. It’s just unbelievable.”
“Messiah” premiered in Dublin in 1742. A year later, it was performed in London for King George II. During the “Hallelujah” chorus, the king stood up. As regal protocol dictated crown subjects should stand when the king stood, a tradition was born. To this day, it is considered proper to stand for the “Hallelujah” chorus, said Thompson.
Another interesting bit about the piece is its fixture as a Christmas standard. The “Messiah” is composed in three parts, which refer to Christ’s birth, death and resurrection. Easter might seem the best time to perform the work because “the big capper is the resurrection” but “Christmas is a much bigger deal in our culture,” said Thompson.
It’s also interesting to note that the “Hallelujah” chorus ends the second part, the one dealing with Christ’s death. The final chorus in the third part, the section dealing with the resurrection, is the not-quite-as-famous “Amen” chorus.
And for those wondering, the chorus culminating the first part is the not-quite-famous-at-all “His Yoke is Easy, and His Burthen is Light” chorus.
That aside, Thompson said much of the “Messiah” is full of recognizable work, it’s just that the “Hallelujah” chorus is “the one everybody knows.” And if you attend this weekend’s concerts, Thompson asks that you refrain from singing along when the chorus begins. It’s OK to hum quietly though, he said.
In addition to being a showcase for Handel, the concert will also feature a choir that is among the strongest Thompson has yet heard, he said. The talent level is impressive, he added, as are the soloists, which include a number of prominent Central Oregon vocalists. Set to solo during the concerts are Melissa Bagwell, Ann Hogrefe, Kelli Kirkman, Bevalee Runner, Katrina Hays, Sherie Neff, Adam Grieve, Steve Osterkamp, Jason Stein and James Knox.
A small orchestra of 21 musicians will provide accompaniment. It will consist of strings, oboes, bassoons, trumpets, timpani, harpsichord and organ.
Musically, the “Messiah” is interesting for its “Handelian hammerstrokes,” said Thompson, powerful, dramatic accents that happen when the choir comes together on a single word. There’s also great use of pauses to create tension and an emphasis on melody and straightforward harmonies, Thompson said.
“Handel alternated fugal passages with passages in solid blocks of harmony, This is part of the great appeal of singing his music. He could write beautiful movements in an older more contrapuntal style but then go to the newer, simpler style,” Thompson said.
Thompson hopes the performance will be special, especially since it’s not often done. The last time he performed it locally was in 2003 with the Cascade Chorale.
“It’s just so evident people are hungry for this piece,” said Thompson. “It’s really unique in the entire musical world.”