I’m a big fan of the Messiah. Every year I go to a sing-a-long, and since I’ve been in LA it’s been at the Disney Center. I used to play my parents’ old record of the complete recording (vinyl, before it became trendy) and would study to it. I can whistle all four parts of For Unto Us A Child Is Born (though not at once, and not in their octave). I listen to it all year long, my neighbors hear me belting out the alto solos when they walk their dogs, and my husband suspects that I might have a Messiah Obsession.
Let’s just get a soundtrack going for this blog entry, shall we? Here’s some “For Unto Us…” goodness:
Ahhh, the last minute of that really gives me goosebumps. The harmonies in the final “the everlasting father, the Prince of Peace…”….like buttah, I tell you.
Anyway, I was happy to have found a perfect book for me this Christmas Season. Every Valley: Advent with the Scriptures of Handel’s Messiah (John Knox Press: full disclosure, I got a prepub copy from the publisher courtesy of netgalley), which is a collection of 40 essays/devotions based on the libretto of the Messiah. It’s a wonderful little gem for the holidays where each essay is based on a piece of scripture that is included in the Messiah, and made me start to really think about the words I’ve been singing for so long “Comfort ye my people, saith your God…” and gave me a new appreciation for the musical wordplay that Handel accomplished “and I will sha-aaa-aaa-aaaa-aaake.”
I think the history of the Messiah is every bit as interesting as the music itself. Originally a piece of music for Easter, it premiered in Dublin in April 1742 – He chose a Dublin debut because he had received some lackluster reviews with previous oratorio debuts in London in previous years. Women were asked to wear skirts without hoops to make room for more people, and the crowd swelled to over 700.
Handel was a draw, but so was the alto solo, Susannah Cibber, who was a headline for US Weekly on the level of Kim Kardashian’s ass. She was an actress who got her start in Covent Garden, and married Theophilus Cibber, the son of a playwright. Apparently Theophilus had some serious debts, so while Susannah got more and more popular, Theo starts selling her jewels and wardrobe. To make extra money, they took in a boarder. Stories vary about what happened between the three, but Susannah and the boarder, William Sloper, definitely had an affair. It might have been a weird thing between the three of them, and there were rumors that Theo had held a gun to his wife’s head to get her to sleep with William. The whole thing came to a climax (so to speak) in 1740-41 when she took off and moved to Dublin. The only reason I repeat this tabloid tale is because there’s an apocryphal story that in the middle of her one solo where she sings, “He was despised” one audience member, Reverend Patrick Delaney, so moved by the music, stands up and says, “Woman, for this be all thy sins be forgiven thee!”
So the reviews were good, but there’s also a quote where Handel said that, while he wanted people to like the Messiah, more than anything he wanted it to make them better. Though we mainly think of Handel just for the Messiah, he was one of the greatest composers of his day. Mozart himself tried to do a new orchestration of the Messiah in 1789, but admitted that he fell far short. Beethoven called Handel the greatest composer ever.
This little devotional book (each one takes about 5-10 minutes to read) has been a fun addition to the holiday traditions already, and I think we’ll probably read from it every year.