I imagine that most choral singers remember their first Messiah – it’s such a vital piece of our repertoire, a rite of passage that takes you deep into the heart of the English-speaking musical world. For me, just a couple of words from a Bible reading with a Messiah text are enough to let loose the floodgates, and Handel’s music seeps into my mind – look around at a Nine Lessons and Carols service and see how many people are silently singing during the readings. Like many choirs, the chorus I sang with in Canada did an annual Messiah, and the musical director kept saying that “next year” he would make us do it off-copy – he didn’t while I was there, but it seemed a perfectly plausible thing to attempt. I’ve sung it enough times now that my score is getting worn with rubbing out pencil markings from previous performances, but I still remember how absolutely thrilled I was that first time.
People talk about Messiah as being part of our “musical DNA” but it has to get there; we’re not born with the ability to dash off all those semiquavers in For unto us and for all its familiarity, it’s not an easy sing, so I think it’s more like a baptism – an immersion into something that will then always be a part of you, and that then grows and matures.
This is why I’m particularly looking forward to Durham County Youth Choir’s Messiah at Durham Cathedral on Saturday – I’m sure that a number of the young singers there will be experiencing their first Messiah, and perhaps many of the former members who are coming back for this special performance to celebrate the choir’s 50th anniversary will be reliving their own first experiences of singing Handel’s great music.
The moment I really remember from my first Messiah was, of course, Hallejulah – I was thinking “here I am, singing Messiah, in the Royal Albert Hall, and my Mum’s here, and oh my goodness, everyone really has stood up”. I don’t care if the standing business is just a silly tradition based on what may be a myth or a misunderstanding, for me it’s a lovely way for singers and audience together to acknowledge just how much Messiah means to us all. The moment I hear the solemn dotted rhythms of the glorious overture, I get a tingle of excitement, knowing all the good things still to come: the long wait for the first choir entry (with the moment of glory going to the altos – we love Handel); the adrenalin of the fast choruses; the sublime arias; and the sense of homecoming when you get to the final chorus, with the last terror of the big pause before the final Amen. Everyone has their favourite chorus: mine is probably He trusted in God with that spiky, passionate fugue line, reminiscent of a Bach passion crowd chorus, and my copy has the wonderful instruction “be vampy” scribbled on it from some performance. Then there are all those odd tiny little moments of utter beauty, probably different for each person, where Handel suddenly creates something really special – for me, there’s a cadence in Their sound is gone out that is burnished gold, and the little bit of recit Behold I tell you a mystery makes you feel that yes, something has changed, a corner has been turned.
So I hope above all that those who are singing it for the first time on Saturday have a thoroughly good time, but also that they will all have the opportunity to sing many more Messiahs and gradually find their own surprises and new corners of delight in it with every new performance.