I am preparing this morning to attend the annual Sing-Along Messiah with Toronto’s esteemed Tafelmusik Orchestra and Choir later this afternoon. This is an event I have attended almost every year since 2003. As I pull out my score, the pages of the choruses traditionally sung during the event well-marked, I muse a little about history–mine, and that of the traditions surrounding Handel’s masterwork.
George Frideric Handel (or Georg Friedrich Händel as he was originally) was born in 1685 in Halle, then part of Brandenburg-Prussia. He showed talent first for the organ, but also is known to have played a number of other instruments. After his father’s death in 1697, he attended university for law in Halle and supported himself as an organist as he began his composing career. Handel was deeply interested in choral music, however, particularly Italian opera, so it is no surprised that he spent several years in Italy after composing his first operas in Germany. A turning point came when he accepted the position of Kapellmeister to George, the Elector of Hanover who would eventually become King George I of England. Although George did not become King until 1714, Handel moved to London in 1712 and began to support himself through English patrons, including Queen Anne. George was apparently not pleased, and was not fully reconciled until Handel composed the Water Music for him in 1717. Until his death in 1759, he was a prolific composer, writing instrumental compositions, operas, and then the English oratorios (of which the Messiah is one) for a variety of patrons, as well as continuing to perform as an organist. Per Wikipedia: “Handel’s compositions include 42 operas, 29 oratorios, more than 120 cantatas, trios and duets, numerous arias, chamber music, a large number of ecumenical pieces, odes and serenatas, and 16 organ concerti.” Unlike many composers, he seemed to never lack for funds or patrons, and was held in extremely high esteem during his lifetime. By 1752 he seems to have been completely blind from cataracts. He never married, although modern speculation that he might have been gay seems to have been largely discarded. Handel was known as a genial, charitable man with a wonderful sense of humour, a love for good food and drink (he apparently would serve guests less appealing wine while sneaking into an adjoining room to get at the “good stuff”), but also with a sizable ego and streak of bad temper. (I mention these latter points as they are key to Ivars Taurins’ portrayal of Handel at the annual Tafelmusik sing-along event. More on that shortly).
The Messiah itself premiered in April, 1742 in Dublin, in a performance benefiting three charities, to a house so packed that ladies were advised to leave their hoop skirts at home. Handel apparently composed the entire work within about 24 days. It was a rather revolutionary composition, having no plot per se other than than being divided into three sections depicting the life of Christ as depicted in Biblical texts, but it was an enormous success almost immediately, and productions took place almost every year thereafter, often for charity; Handel was particularly fond of London’s Foundling Hospital and arranged yearly benefit concerts on their behalf. However, it was usually played in the Easter season rather than at Christmas, at least until about the 19th century. Handel himself continued to revise the work, such that there is no general agreement as to which version is the definitive one. So great was its popularity that subsequent arrangers (including Mozart) increased the size of the modest orchestra and choir (and added instruments) until by the Victorian era, absolutely huge productions of the work became more common. In recent years, while the large productions have continued, performances by smaller ensembles, often using period instruments and limited to Handel’s original orchestration (strings, a pair of trumpets, an oboe and a bassoon, with organ and/or harpsichord continuo) have also become popular. Tafelmusik’s production is of this variety.
So what about this idea of a “sing-along Messiah“? I can think of no other piece of classical music where performances are regularly held where an audience is encouraged to participate. The Messiah has a decently-long history of being sung informally by small groups of friends or in churches with keyboard accompaniment, but this takes the concept one step further by providing a professional orchestra, choir, and soloists. In Britain and Australia, this type of concert is known as a Scratch Messiah, where North Americans usually know it as a Sing-Along Messiah. The tradition dates back to at least 1962, with some of the larger productions dating to the 70s. Tafelmusik’s production dates to 1984.
Since its inception, Ivars Taurins, who leads the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, has played the role of Handel at the annual sing-along. Wearing his powdered wig and 18th century clothing that he made himself, and affecting a German accent, Taurins has a well-rehearsed schtick about being recalled from Heaven every year by God to conduct the Messiah Sing-along, with good food and claret (served to him in the intermission) his reward. Those attending will inevitably see him seat himself in an ornate chair, moving as if he is an obese man (he is not), in a puff of wig powder. You can also guarantee that he will warn the basses not to get run over by the enormous crowd of sopranos, and that he will gently tease the altos about being “depressed mezzosoprani and tenors with midlife crises”. He will tell a story about the Pifa movement being inspired by the shepherds’ pipes he heard during his travels in Italy. But each year, the patter varies just enough (and alludes to current events) just enough to be fresh. In previous years, the concert has always taken place at Massey Hall, which seems to lend a feel in keeping with the music. This year, with Massey Hall under renovation, the concert is in the cavernous Roy Thompson Hall. I will be curious what this does to the aesthetics.
I started attending the Sing-along Messiah in 2003, the year I moved back to Toronto. I still was commuting monthly to work in Columbus and felt a little detached from the city of Toronto; I saw this as a way to reconnect with the cultural life of the city now that I could afford to do so. I had always wanted to try the sing-along, as I had learned several of the choruses in choirs during my high school, university, and early grad school days. Once I attended that first year, I was hooked, and attended every single year up until the year of the pre-Christmas ice storm a few years ago. I subsequently missed one additional year due to a veterinary emergency, and last year due to a scheduling conflict.
I attend the sing-along Messiah for two reasons: First, the quality of the Tafelmusik choir, orchestra, and the soloists is invariably high. I look forward each year to seeing whether a countertenor or an alto will sing the alto solos, and whether my favourite baritone, Brent Polegato, might make a return appearance. But the main reason I return as often as I can is it is my one chance to actually participate in performing a classical masterpiece. No one cares (expect maybe yourself) if you can’t quite hit every note or you miss your entrance, but yet you are led by professionals. It’s something truly special. There is no better way to express the holiday spirit, whether you are religious or not.
As Taurins, as Herr Handel, says every year, “In here, life is beautiful.”