Christmas is a time when otherwise ordinary people burst into song. Children and adults sing carols to their families, their friends, unsuspecting pets, and even venture into assisted living facilities. Little kids learn Jingle Bells. Adults throw caution to the winds and participate in Messiah Sing-a-Longs.
An extreme version of this activity is “Christmas Food Court Flash Mob, Hallelujah Chorus” on You Tube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXh7JR9oKVE A crowded food court, people noshing, a lady in a Santa hat playing Christmas carols, when suddenly, up jumps a soprano. . . singing . . . Hallelujah! You might be forgiven for thinking her eggnog was spiked – but then, up jumps a tenor at the other side of the room, and so it goes. As soon as critical mass is reached – everyone starts to participate.
Community Messiah Sing-a-Longs can be found in cities and towns of all sizes. All you need are copies of the music (or at least words) for the audience, four soloists, a director to keep things together, and a few musicians – organist, pianist, perhaps a trumpet or two. It’s good times for everyone.
Why do we do this? How did this annual 2-hour event begin? Return with me to the olden days before the English discovered Christmas trees. There was a musician named Georg Friedrich Handel. Born in Germany, he moved to England about the same time as George I (remembered as the English king who spoke only German).
Handel was George I’s music master. On the side, he wrote Italian operas for the aristocracy. [Hmmm. A German composer living in England writing Italian operas. How very international.] The operas were expensive musical plays. The singers generally came from Italy. They required costumes, scenery, and an orchestra. Eventually, someone did the math, and demanded cost cutting measures.
Handel created less expensive entertainments sung in English. This generated interest from the professional classes who did not understand Italian. Reduced costs plus increased ticket sales led to more profits for the composer. Handel knew an opportunity when he saw it, and began to compose “oratorios.” These had a story line, but only required one soprano, one alto, one tenor, and one bass. Chorus members could be replaced at will. Add a couple musicians, and the cast was complete.
You said you were going to talk about Messiah. I don’t care about Oreos.
Okay, hold your eggnog. There was a guy named Charles Jennens who wrote words for oratorios. Jennens wanted to set the story of Jesus’ life to music so he went through the Bible and created the story line for Messiah.
In August 1741, Jennens took his script to Handel, who was so excited he composed the entire score in 24 days. Part I is about Jesus’ birth. Part II about his life and death. Part III covers the Resurrection, which Christians celebrate at Easter. Yes, Messiah is an Easter oratorio, but we sing it at Christmas, so we don’t need anything except Part I, plus the Hallelujah chorus at the end of Part II. [Did you check out the Food Court Flash Mob yet – everyone recognizes the Hallelujah chorus.]
So, we have words. We have music. And then Handel had an invitation from William Cavendish, the Third Duke of Devonshire to visit him in Dublin and put on some fundraiser concerts for hospitals. Handel packed his bags and headed across the Irish Sea. “What the heck,” Handel thought, “I’ll bring Messiah.”
Boring. — Wait it gets better.
The first performance was on April 13,1742. To generate interest, Handel invited the public to attend rehearsal the day before. The chorus was composed of men and boys from St. Patrick’s and Christ Church cathedrals. Two female singers participated. Christina Maria Avoglio, soprano, and Susannah Cibber, contralto. At the time, Cibber was involved in a divorce scandal.
“Have you heard? Theophilus Cibber forced Susannah (at gunpoint, no less) to sleep with William Sloper,” said the first person.
“Really? I heard it was a ménage a trois,” commented the second person.
“Well,” whispered person number three behind her fan, “I heard that Cibber paid a spy to wait in the closet and catch them in the act.”
Ahem. Music Hall management respectfully requests gentlemen remove their swords and ladies the hoops under their dresses, so the maximum number of people may attend the performance.
And what a day it was. Seven hundred people came. One, a Reverend Delaney, was so moved after hearing Cibber sing, he pronounced her sins forgiven. The take was large enough to discharge the debts of 142 prisoners in debtors’ prison, and benefit two charities.
And the reason we have Messiah Sing-A-Longs at Christmas is because . . .
It’s fun. Mainly. Of course, Messiah had to move from Easter to Christmas because we don’t sing Easter songs . . . Well some people do, but mainly not. And also because, at the time, there were lots of big things to do at Easter – like Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Not exactly a hummable tune.
Messiah is culture for the common folk – The Christmas Story, a standing stretch for the Hallelujah Chorus, and eggnog to follow. A feel good experience if there ever was one. Hallelujah!
Sources With More Details
Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.
Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.