The history of the Sing-along Messiah, also known as a “Scratch Messiah” and a “Messiah Sing,” is a bit difficult to pin down. Since its premier in April, yes April, in 1742, productions of the English language oratorio for soloists, chorus, and orchestra have taken all shapes and sizes. The Great Handel Festival of 1857 sported a chorus of thousands. (725 sopranos, 719 altos, 659 tenors, and 662 basses.) Held at the Crystal Palace, an enormous cast iron and plate glass structure with an organ of more than 4,000 pipes, it’s a wonder none of the glass shattered from the high notes. I do question whether the nearly four thousand Handel Festival singers were all “professionals” by a verifiable standard. As a business proposition, maybe some were paid in beer, so perhaps that should be counted as the first sing-along. In the States, the singalong seems to have gotten going in earnest in the 1960s. Named like the popular protest “Sit Ins” of the day, the National Chorale claims its Messiah “Sing-in” is the longest running in the country. Now in its 56th year, they will perform this year at Lincoln Center’s newly restored David Geffen Hall.
We love the uplifting message of Messiah. Humanity shall be saved! But what do we need saving from? You guessed it, the Jews. The scholarship of Michael Marissen, author of Tainted Glory in Handel’s Messiah, leaves little room for doubt that the libretto, adapted by Charles Jennens from biblical passages, is intended as a call to action, that so-called heathen nations must be vanquished. Another author on the subject, Robert J. Elisberg, imagines librettist Jennens in hell, enduring a frustrated eternity because his alarmist message has morphed in to a yearly, all-inclusive love-fest.
As a Messiah veteran and a Jewish singer who has sung professionally in churches from Catholic to Christian Science, I know from personal experience that one must always take religious lyrics with a healthy grain of kosher salt. You have to do some substitution to sing “How Beautiful are the Feet?” convincingly. But there’s really no question that the glorious unity of old was at the expense of the perceived villainous Hebrew race. A poignant fact for today, though it cannot, as with Wagner’s personal and thematic antisemitism, nullify the power of the music. (Thank heaven for small mercies.) But yes, as satirical songster Tom Lehrer might have put it: Fa la la la la, “and everybody hates the Jews.”
If you find this line of inquiry distressing you are not alone. After finishing his book, Marissen said he needed to take a break from religious topics, and would begin work on a general reader’s introduction to Bach. And if you are still upset, I can’t do better than to quote the title of Elisberg’s article: You Can’t Handel the Truth.
The sister of composer Thomas Arne, Cibber was admired by Handel and others for a rich and agile voice, but in 1741 she was in the throes of a PR problem. Having left an abusive husband to have children with another man, her husband sued. But as the husband in question seems to have only been after his wife’s money (a story sadly repeated in the lives of many great singers across history) sympathy for the “wronged” man was limited. Handel’s casting of Cibber as alto soloist for the premier performance of Messiah, which took place in Dublin, seemed to secure her redemption. The poignance of her singing in the great lament, He Was Despised, is said to have moved the chancellor of St. Patrick’s cathedral to declare all Cibber’s sins forgiven. The English theater owes Handel a great debt for bringing Cibber back into the fold. After Messiah, Cibber returned to London, where she became one of the greatest tragedians of the day, gracing the Drury Lane boards as leading lady opposite David Garrick.
In 1741, Handel was having a tough time of it. Treading water if not drowning in debt, he was also recovering from a stroke, and his operas were failing to meet the changing tastes of London audiences. He took the text provided by Charles Jennens, and holed himself up for twenty-four days and wrote Messiah. Hoping for a change of luck, he welcomed an invitation from the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland to perform a series of concerts in Dublin. Messiah was an add-on, squeezed in between those other concerts. As rehearsals opened to the public, interest grew. Perhaps because there was not much going on the Dublin stage during Lent, and perhaps because many wanted to get a look at the notorious Susanna Cibber, a large crowd was anticipated. To make room for the crowds, women were asked not to wear their hoop skirts, and the gentlemen were asked to leave their swords at home. The space, with capacity for 600, squeezed in 700 Dubliners.
Despite his own travails, or perhaps because of them, Handel cared deeply about those living in poor health and poverty, and the performance was held to benefit three charities. The prison debtor’s relief, a hospital, and an infirmary. Many were thrilled by Messiah’s success, but perhaps none more so than the 142 men freed from debtor’s prison by the proceeds. A repeat performance in June was offered for Handel’s benefit, and as a farewell to the composer before his final return to London. When he died, Handel left what had by then become a great fortune to charity.
Since 1992, every April 13th on Dublin’s Fishamble Street, an open air performance of Messiah takes place to commemorate the premier of this great work, and the city’s place in musical history.
Their eponymous album was played incessantly in our household, with wonderful tunes delivered in steely-voiced three-part harmony. The sisters’ rendition of Hallelujah Chorus made a smash on Saturday Night Live in 1979. There have been many exquisite versions of this chorus, and there are many more to come, but to this author none could better the taut, sincere, and utterly musical rendition of those three women. One of its most distinctive features is the tune up, three notes sung on “ah” as the sisters adjust their harmony.
A Handelian anecdote: one day many years ago, my then-husband and I happened to be in North Hampton, Massachusetts, (also the home of a long-running Messiah Sing.) We were walking down the main street past a small nightclub in the middle of the afternoon when we heard those unmistakable three notes ring out. “Ah!” “Ah!” “Ah!” It was like a divine visitation, a moment of musical history stepping out of time and falling upon our ears through the open door of the small venue. We stopped and looked at the poster advertising the act performing that night. Yes. We’d just heard the Roches doing their sound check.
I’ve been soloist for a few Messiahs in my day and it is an odd experience, but delightful, when the audience suddenly stands up and joins in. In one local Messiah I did, at Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, we all wore period costume, with Conductor Brian Baker looking quite a lot like Mozart in his white wig and satin britches. Like choruses around the country, UUCB’s Messiah Sing will be held this year.
The tradition goes on.
Some links for those with further interest:
My interview with conductor and Handel expert Jeffrey Thomas Here.
The Roches sing Hallelujah on SNL Here.
A wonderful five-minute documentary on the scandalous contralto Here.