Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Unfinished movements

Here are the movements that we did not accomplish, and the plans I had envisioned:

#26 chorus: All We Like Sheep. I had hoped to sing this very difficult chorus with a quartet, including two professional guest soloists during one of the summer services. Alas, our schedules are not cooperating.

#34 recit: Unto Which of the Angels. This brief recitative leads to Let All the Angels of God Worship Him, which we played as a string quartet.

#41-43: Let Us Break Their Bonds Asunder (chorus), He That Dwelleth in Heaven (tenor recit), Thou Shalt Break Them (tenor aria). These often omitted movements were difficult to program. I had hoped to have the recit and aria done during the summer by a professional tenor, but was again thwarted by the schedule. The chorus was difficult and hard to program liturgically. Does the fact that we did #44 three times make up for these lapses? :)

#49-50 : Then Shall Be Brought to Pass (alto recit) and O Death, Where is thy Sting? (alto/tenor duet). My original plan was to present these two on May 3rd- when a bluegrass band was here to play for worship. The big idea was that they band would do Ralph Stanley's O Death and then we would follow with the Handel O Death, Where is thy Sting? Events of May 3rd did not go as planned.

#51: But Thanks be to God (chorus). As noted previously, we scheduled this one for Christ the King Sunday, but found ourselves too busy to learn it completely.

#52a: Amen (chorus). The majestic final chorus of Messiah was scheduled for the close of the school year- June 14 or 21 - but with our recent losses, it will be too much for the choir to tackle.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

throwing in the towel

At this point, I can foresee that we will not complete the entire project. There are a few more weeks of the school year, with a full choir, and then five weeks of summer services with soloists providing music.
The number of singers decreases as the summer draws closer... and we are still dealing with the loss of strongest tenor. One of our strongest basses will be graduating and leaving for college soon. The choir has responded very well to this long project, but I think they are tired and might not appreciate one final push. These final Sundays of the school year are also jammed full of special events- church school Sunday, teacher recognition, graduation, confirmation, etc.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

eleven: Ascension Sunday, #36

Joanna Hawkins Nannestad, alto. Karen Tucker, organ.

six weeks after Easter Sunday, we celebrate the Ascension of Christ. Aria #38 (Thou Art Gone Up On High) is one of the more obscure solo movements of Messiah. It features some florid, Italienate lines, in the style of "Rejoice Greatly" but much simpler. Once again, Handel created several version for different singers. We selected version I for alto in d minor, and featured my lovely wife as the soloist. It was a logistical bonus, because Ascension Sunday fell on the Memorial Day Weekend, and my choir was largely on vacation.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

ten: pastoral installation #37-38

Joanna Hawkins Nannestad, alto. Karen Tucker, organist. FP Choir.

A rare occasion to include in the project: the installation of our new pastor. These two movements were immediately appropriate: the chorus #37 (The Lord Gave the Word; Great was the company of the preachers) and the aria #38 (How Beautiful are the Feet of those who Preach the Gospel of Peace.)

That aria has several versions- one version is actually a duet with chorus- but we elected to use the soprano g minor aria, which is Version I in the Watkins Shaw edition. There is an alternate c minor version for alto, but Joanna felt it sounded best at about f minor. Really, what's the use of having a Rodgers organ if you don't take advantage of the transposer button?

Well, unexpected drama- we don't use that button much, and the organist unknowingly cancelled the transposition when setting the registration for the aria. As soon as the introduction started, I could tell it was in g minor. Joanna rose to the occasion and handled the multiple high Gs... but, if given the choice, would elect a lower key!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

other liturgical occasions

It has been such a sad week around the church. Funerals and memorials are a regular part of any church musician's load, but when it is a friend and member of the choir, one must hope that the work helps deal with the grief. The unexpected death of one of our tenors (and trumpeter, and arranger, and all around musical impresario) has shaken me and the choir. Jim was also one of the driving forces behind this project- with his strong sense of pitch and adventurous musical sense, I could rest assured that the tenors would keep up, leaders would carry the alto and soprano sections, and I could keep those six basses pointed in the right direction. He was also the trumpeter for #48 "The Trumpet Shall Sound." It will be very difficult to do any of the remaining choruses without him.

I did briefly wonder what parts of Messiah might ever be fitting for a memorial service. I think I have heard #44 "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth" in such a context; what else? Any ideas? This is a purely rhetorical exercise.

For the funeral, the choir sang three anthems: "Laudate Dominum" from Mozart Solemn Vespers (with a string ensemble), "Balm in Gilead" by William Dawson, and "Sing Me To Heaven" by Daniel Gawthrop. The last was a stretch, but the choir practically demanded it, and they distinguished themselves. Th strings played several times (including "Ashokan Farewell" and "Lovers' Waltz" by Ungar) and a brass quintet accompanied the hymns and also played a transcription of "Pie Jesu" from the Faure Requiem.

This service will stay with me a long time, but the project continues. In another week we have a pastoral installation!

nine: Easter two, #45

Kathy Davis, soprano. Karen Tucker, organ.

"I Know That My Redeemer Liveth". Sung on the second Sunday of Easter by our excellent soprano soloist, accompanied on the organ. How lucky we are to have a soloist capable of this formidable aria! And a good fit for this particular Sunday, as the choir takes a day off to recover from the Holy Week histrionics.

I remember now that I taught this aria to a young (college-age) soprano when I was a not-much-older novice voice teacher. She was excited about this piece, but it takes a lot of sensitivity to make it musical, and that was a particularly long slog of a teaching experience. Good thing I don't teach voice lessons any more!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

eight: Easter Sunday, #44, 46-48, 53a

The Lord is Risen indeed!

FP Choir; William Moffett, Joseph Moffett, and Jim Anderson, trumpets; your humble narrator, bass; Karen Tucker, organ.

#46 "Since By Man Came Death" was at the beginning of the service. I love this chorus on Easter Sunday- as if the first six measures still belong to Good Friday, and suddenly Easter springs forth at letter A. One of our tenors is also an avid trumpeter, and he was slated to do #48 "The Trumpet Shall Sound" with one of my baritones. The baritone has had some vocal issues lately, though, and had to bow out. I survived the aria okay, but I definitely had my mind elsewhere on a busy Sunday morning! We sang #53 "Worthy is the Lamb"- NOT the Amen chorus, only the first section. In fact, we went from #48 to #53 without pause, since they are in the same key. Finally, #44 Hallelujah Chorus was an open sing to conclude the service- about 60 people came up to sing with the choir and two trmpets. And, to top it off, the preacher used the Hallelujah Chorus as a sermon illustration today.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

seven: Maundy Thursday, #23-25, 27-32

...with a reprise of a few of those choruses from Part Two. FP Choir; Kathy Davis, soprano; Joanna Hawkins Nannestad, alto; Karen Tucker, piano/organ.

Our church does not normally worship on Good Friday, so Maundy Thursday becomes an interesting hybrid service: footwashing, communion, tenebrae with readings from the elders gahered at the table. Nearly all of Part Two provided the commentary- really, the inexorable march toward Calvary throughout the depiction of Holy Week. The choir distinguished itself with an excellent reading of #28 "He Trusted in God." More on that later. As mentioned previously, we are blessed with a soprano soloists who can really sing Handel and Haydn, and she did very well with #27 and 29-32. That last one (Air: But Thou Didst Not Leave His Soul in Hell) seemed to complete the set of short solo soprano (really tenor) movements. The uplifting tone may have seemed a bit out of place in Tenebrae, but I was glad for its presence in an otherwise exceedingly dark service. Our alto provided a tremendous reading of "He was Despised." It was the musical and spiritual highlight of the evening for me- although I may be biased. It was also an education for some: the da capo aria that almost never ends. The following choral piece was titled "Tis Finished"- which was probably what the congregation was thinking anyway!

#28 provided an excellent moment of discovery for the singers. The words (He Trusted in God that he would deliver him; let him deliver him if he delight in him) are rather vague when standing alone. This choir, concerned with the black notes scurrying across the page, had not taken time to imagine meaning or context. When pressed, they weren't sure of what they were singing. Rather than talking about it, we simply started with the soprano recitative (#27: All They That See Him Laugh Him to Scorn.) The tone of scorn and taunting dawned on their faces almost simultaneously. I love when that happens!

Easter happens any moment now....

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

six: Lent IV, #24 and 25

Precluding an all-Handel-all-the-time Lent, two Sundays were turned over to his colleagues JS Bach and Thomas Tallis. By the Fourth Sunday of Lent, however, we return to the pilgrimage. We sang #24 "Surely He Has Borne Our Griefs" and #25 "And With His Stripes We Are Healed." I had considered holding "Stripes" until later this year, worried the choir may be overburdened. However, they pleasantly surprised me by demonstrating that this fugue is rather straightforward. Troubles were typical- a tendency to rush the tempo and also to sing every note the same. I believe "plodding" was a word used by one of the altos. However, by the time worship arrived, it had become a thing of beauty.
The final cadence of "Stripes", of course, provides a dominant to the next movement (#26 "All We Like Sheep.") The choir was in NO WAY prepared to sing "Sheep," but its absence felt conspicuous. Are there any other moments of Messiah when three choruses proceed consecutively?

Monday, March 2, 2009

five: Lent I, #22

First Sunday of Lent = first chorus of part Two. "Behold the Lamb of God" was a stirring start to the Lenten Season as well as pointing us toward the Table on this Communion Sunday. The choir sang in an appropriately dramatic fashion-really, Handel makes it impossible to do otherwise- and the pickup notes were (mostly) of the correct duration.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Part the Second: Lent is nigh

We had a month away from Handel as we tackled Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors." With that performance concluded, and Lent a few weeks away, we opened our scores to Part Two tonight.

Some members of the choir expressed surprise that there was anything between Christmas and the Hallelujah Chorus. I really thought I was in for it.However, tonight's rehearsal turned out pretty well! We started with #22 "Behold the Lamb of God." After one false start, and a little demonstration of the slow tempo and the difference between eight note pickups and sixteenth notes, they dove right in and did well. So well that I moved on to #24 "Surely He Has Borne Our Grief." Again, it took them a moment to acclimate to the rapid dotted figures within the slow tempo. A few measures in, however, they gained confidence.

Something I have been thinking about lately (and I said this to the choir at the end of rehearsal...) : Most of these adult singers did not know these choruses. Having lived on Earth for a number of years, they probably heard them a few times, but they do not know them nearly as well as the Christmas choruses. Regardless, these musicians plunged ahead, made mistakes, corrected them on thefly, and obtained a somewhat musical result. My high schoolers, on the other hand, are so terrified of failing that they often bail out- or fail to try to begin with. The students seem to need this womb of security around them all the time, whereas the adults know that trying and failing leads to learning. The high schoolers can be exhausting in this regard- so much energy goes into encouraging them to to take a risk and try even if they are going to make mistakes. It is refreshing that the adult singers will meet me halfway.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

four: Christmas Eve, #12-20

The great irony of this project for me: Messiah is most often (around here, anyway) regarded as a Christmas work. On the afternoon of our Advent performance, the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston presented its 155th annual rendition of complete Messiah in Advent. When you get right down to it, though, the "Christmas" portion is relatively small. We are working these movements into a service of Lessons and Carols- and there is so little for the choir to do, I am adding a few non-Messiah works.

We are blessed with the presence of Synergy Brass Quintet, a phenomenal professional touring group that used to be based nearby. We are also lucky to have a member of the soprano section that can handle such florid melismas as those in "Rejoice Greatly."

Again, the worship geek factor is high. Be warned. All readings are the traditional Cambridge ones, except for the First, which will be Genesis 1.

Prelude: Messiah #13 (Pastoral Symphony) for organ solo
Light Christ Candle
Hymn: Once in Royal David's City -with first verse child solo and Willcocks brass parts
Greeting and Invocation
Reading 1 / Hymn: Angels from the Realms of Glory wth brass REGENT SQUARE
Reading 2 / Messiah #17 and 18 He Shall Feed His Flock - adult (soprano) and child (alto) solo
Reading 3 / Messiah #12 For Unto Us... choir, organ, and doubling brass
Hymn: Lo, Ho a Rose ES IST EIN ROS
Reading 4 / Climb to the Top of the Highest Mountain- Carolyn Jennings (choir and junior choir)
Reading 5 / Messiah #16 Rejoice Greatly solo soprano
Reading 6 / Hymn: Away in a Manger AWAY IN A MANGER
Reading 7 / Messiah #14-15 There were shepherds.... Glory to God! (maybe add trumpets)
Hymn: Hark! the Herald Angels Sing MENDELSSOHN with Willcocks fanfare for brass
Reading 8 / Messiah #19 His Yoke is Easy for solo brass quintet (thanks to the arranging of one of my tenors who is a brass player and enthusiast!)
Reading 9 / Hymn: O Come, All Ye Faithful ADESTE FIDELIS with Willcocks brass parts
Anthem: Night of Silence- Daniel Kantor
Hymn: Silent Night STILLE NACHT a cappella by candlelight
Postlude by the quintet- which will conclude with Messiah #44 Hallelujah!

Monday, December 8, 2008

designing worship: Advent II

The excerpt we sang timed at around 42 minutes, which made designing worship to include it tricky. This congregation is accustomed to a 70-minute service. It was also a Communion Sunday, which meant 1) of course, allowing time for the sacrament, and 2) necessitating a sermon of some type. (My initial plan was to "let Handel preach the sermon" this morning; our in-house theologians reminded me of the importance of linking word and sacrament.)

I had already dismissed the interim pastor from preaching duties for Dec. 7th. Lucky for me I am married to a theologian, and she prepared a short meditation around the text of #6 (who may abide /refiner's fire.) Many of the congregrants voiced their appreciation of a meditation that was scripturally based, got right to the heart of the matter very quickly, and even brought up unexpected perspective on the liturgical season. (Are we waiting for the infant Jesus? Or the returning Messiah?)

Anyway, if you are a worship geek like me, here are the details.

Prelude (Messiah #1)
Welcome - Call to Worship
Hymn: Lift Up Your Heads, O Mighty Gates (TRURO) - first two verses
Prayer of Confession - Assurance - Response
Advent Candle Lighting
Reading Isaiah 40:1-11 (Comfort, Comfort you my people....)
Children's Sermon (names for Jesus, including "Messiah")
Reading Malachai 3:1-4 (WHo may abide?)
Messiah #2-11, 33
Offering (#35 played by ensemble)
Prayer of Dedication - Passing of Peace
Communion Hymn (two verses of "Let All Mortal Flesh" PICARDY)
Communion *#41 played during distribution)
Hymn- final two verses of "Lift Up Your Heads"

85 minutes. Next time, not on a Communion Sunday.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

three: Advent II #1-11, 33, 35, and 41

FP Choir with guest string ensemble: Lidija Peno-Natchev and Oana Lacatus (violins). Alexia Pizziferri (viola), and Chari Peno (bass). Karen Tucker, harpischord/organ (actually Casio keyboard), Kathy Davis (soprano), Pam Kane (alto), Joanna Hawkins Nannestad (alto), Marco Carneiro (tenor), Colin Levin (baritone). Conducted by Joshua Hawkins Nannestad.

The largest and most concerted section of this project was presented on Sunday during worship. We performed much of Part One, creating a distinction between Advent and Christmas texts that is not realized in Handel's three part structure. #1 was played as the prelude to the worship service. Following a brief meditation on "refiner's fire," we started with #2 and went straight through to the bass aria (The People That Walked in Darkness). Then we leapt to #33 (Lift up your heads), a chorus with trio, which served as a fitting conclusion to this portion, and also referenced the hymn of the day (Lift up your heads, O mighty gates). During Communion, the instrumental ensemble played #35 (Let all the angles of God worship Thee) and #41 (Let us break their bonds asunder). Now we've got these difficult choruses covered, just in case the choir doesn't get them by the end of the year!

The sound was rich and full: the presence of the entire choir at one time (save for one alto) was a rarity, plus the men's sections were bulked up with our two guest soloists. The tenor was a former student of mine who is studying vocal performance in conservatory now; what a treat for me as a teacher! The baritone I hired on recommendation, as he is originally from the area and free on this particular date. He displayed excellent technique, tone, and diction.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Advent rehearsal

We just completed the final rehearsal for the Advent portion. I have hired strings to join us for this portion: two violins, viola, and bass. The bassist provided the means of transport for both the violinists. so I chose him instead of the more traditional cellist. I feared the unusual instrumentation might be distracting- but after the first minutes, I forgot about it. Continuo is continuo, and he is a very good player. (This makes me think of our scheme to teach bassoon to our daughter- so that she will be valuable to her school bands and orchestras, and more importantly, she will be able to play unorthodox continuo in church for us on the weekends!)

The rehearsal went pretty well- I am exhausted! Physically worn. Surely a combination of nervous energy and worry about creating the right rehearsal environment: setting up the performance space, hoping the electric heat would rise to the occasion, worrying about soloists who may or may not be fully prepared, designing the worship service of which this music is the central portion, dealing with the chorister who has not rehearsed for a month and doesn't seem to have a Messiah score... and, oh yeah, trying to conduct clearly and efficiently.

Choir was hesitant at first, but grew more confident and began really singing well at the halfway point of the rehearsal. Hearing the polyphony from four separate string instruments- rather than four voices on a single keyboard- really helps them hear their own part and its interplay with the others.

Just this week, I was reading this interview with a prominent conductor. A snippet: "I don't think I've ever worked harder than trying to conduct a great Handel oratorio, or one of the Bach Passions, or, as is happening just this week, the B Minor Mass."

That interview also has some passing discussion of Messiah, touching on how Handel adapted his work to suit the specific performing forces he had on hand- something I will be doing a lot of this year.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

two: Christ the King Sunday fail

Our planned second outing did not happen. As much as I love Christ the King Sunday, it often seems to fall right before Advent! I had hoped to sing #51 (Thanks be to God) on Nov. 23rd. This church doesn't seem to notice Christ the King Sunday, but the chorus neatly encompasses Thanksgiving as well (Thanks Be to God, who giveth us the victory, through our Lord Jesus Christ.) We tried, but there was just not enough time. Preparing Advent and Christmas sections, as well as "Amahl and the Night Visitors" for Epiphany, just didn't leave enough energy in rehearsal. We will come back to this one during Eastertide.
By the way, the John Eliot Gardiner performance of #51 is a revelation! Not at all like I first heard it in my head!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

first messiah sing

The Messiah Sing is a hallowed tradition in our house. I was just reminded of this picture- From last December, my daughter's first messiah sing, at the age of about nine months. She found it delicious.

MusicTime: booo!

Rant: I ordered the continuo part (Watkins Shaw edition) many weeks ago. After a few emails, I finally got a call today- my order "cannot be filled. Have a nice day."

Grrrrrrr, Anyone reading this want to send me this part? Of course I have already put this request up on choralist.

By the way, chose Watkins Shaw for two reasons: to match the parts (borrowed free from another church) and because I understand that there are helpful notations for performance with organ or harpsichord. Following the helpful comments from earlier this fall, I purchased the Dover edition to conduct from. Thanks for the insights!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

One: World Communion

The first salvo of this project has been fired.

Sunday, Oct. 5 (World Communion Sunday) #39 and #40 FP Choir, Joanna Hawkins Nannestad (alto), Karen Tucker (piano).

The choir sang "Their Sound is Gone Out" at the beginning of worship. It was vibrant and resounding- the scale passages starting at letter A wanted to rush, but the tenors were able to rein it in. It was an excellent start to world communion worship. The text was reinforced with the reading of Psalm 19 a few minutes later. (Accompanied, by the way, by Haydn's "The Heavens are Telling. We had or very own Handel and Haydn Society this Sunday.)

My lovely wife presented an alto rendition of "Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage Together." For those curious, it was Version II, the shorter version, with a recitative at the end. While we were not prepared to sing the following chorus, I had planned that E cadence to help transition into the Doxology. Oops! We do not sing the Doxology in that spot on Communion Sundays. Ah, well.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Handel and Brahms

I am singing in a performance of Brahms "German Requiem" this weekend. With several hours between rehearsal and performance, and steady pounding rain, I took refuge in a bookstore and found this:

"As a sacred, nonliturgical text for music, A German Requiem has but one peer, and that is the Jennens-Handel Messiah. Like Handel, Brahms knew his Bible well. ... "
from Michael Steinberg: Choral Masterworks: A Listener's Guide (OUP, 2005)

The text selection is so vital to these works- in some cases pairing snippets from far distant Biblical sections to present a unified concept in a musical movement.

Part Three opens with the soprano aria "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth." Having heard this a hundred times, I would have assumed that the entire text came from one place- in fact, though Jennens and Handel added Job to First Corinthians! Brahms paired a Beatitude with a Psalm in the first movement- other movements start with Pauline writings but close with a fugue from Revelation. These three- Brahms and Jennens and (perhaps) Handel- exhibit a bit of Biblical knowledge similar to Bach's gigantic, all-encompassing mastery of Biblical texts.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A sign?

The new batch of kindergartners has arrived. (I teach the little kids, as well as the high schoolers.) I have had plenty of students named "Emmanuel" or "Jesus," but this one was new to me. I have a "Messiah!"

I hope he behaves well this year.

Oh, We Like Sheep

"We Like Sheep, too!"

Careful pronunciation required. This chorus, unknown to me when I first sang in those Christmas Messiahs years ago, might be my very favorite now. First of all, it is a RIOT- the vocal lines scattering hither and yon all over the page! We all, of course, learned about voice leading from Papa Bach- and that adjacent voices are not to extend more than an octave from another (the exception is the basses, just because we are so very terrific.) And, clearly, Handel was not subject to training under the strictures of his contemporary. I still imagine, though, that the octave-plus differential between voices (m. 22 and similar) was also intended to show our meandering from the path. Not only disjunct, but truly divergent,

The melismas of "we have turned" (m. 11 and similar) are probably the most difficult in all of Messiah. And look how the counterparts to those melismas are exactly opposite: as simple as he could write them.

Finally, the jarring change at measure 76. There had been so much merry cavorting and jolly fun, but when this measure arrives we starkly reminded of what we are talking about: "And the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all."

Sunday, September 7, 2008


Thanks to all who suggested a recording or score. My Dover score arrived last week.

I am chasing down more and more recorded performances, but I found something unusual two weeks ago: a DVD performance. Used and cheap, too! Slyvia McNair, Anne Sofie van Otter, Michael Chance, Jerry Hadley, Robert Lloyd, St. Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner. 1992 performance; Phillips DVD.

I have not had the chance to watch and listen yet. With that lineup, though, I imagine I will like it a great deal!

Taking stock

We officially started the project today- it was a start of the year party. Before the brats and beers, though, we gathered in a the living room of one of the tenors and sang most of the oratorio. (When I say 'we', I mean about half of the choir- with the strongest leaders in each section present.)

We started with the first chorus -"And the Glory of the Lord"- and plowed through. Everyone had sung most of the whole work before. Results were mixed. The easier ones were well done and even a little musical. The melismatic ones - "He Shall Purify" and "For Unto Us a Son is Born"- suffered some. And "All We Like Sheep" was quite the chaotic, disordered affair... even more than it was intended to be! I enjoy how this adult choir is fearless in plowing ahead, despite fatal flaws. When the breeze took the pianist's score away, the choir soon lost pitch, and eventually devolved into a rhythmic reading. My high schoolers, faced with the same problem, would immediately stop singing and crawl into their shell.

We tried out "Lift Up Your Heads" from the Second Part. We assigned three women to sing in alternation with the whole chorus; this gave a kind of concerto grosso effect AND saved us from dividing the sopranos. Worked very well, I think I will keep that.

We got to laugh and joke and tell Messiah stories (everybody has them!) in between movements. Overall, a light, enjoyable, but fruitful first step.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The first incisions

Count backwards from 100, Mr. Sacred Oratorio, you're about to go under the knife....

I have often seen reference to "the Christmas and Advent portions of Messiah”. This is not a particularly clear delineation, however, since the three parts of Messiah do not divide neatly into 1) Advent & Christmas, 2) Lent, and 3) Easter or any other grouping of liturgical seasons. The common practice, of course, when not performing the complete Messiah at Christmas, is to do Part One, plus the Hallelujah Chorus. Sometimes the final "Amen" chorus is added, too.

I am programming all of Part 1 in the month of December, starting with a sizeable chunk on the Second Sunday of Advent while leaving the movements that celebrate Christmas for Christmas Eve. The question is: where shall I divide Part One? The answer is not as obvious as I expected, since I’m finding that some of that Old Testament prophecy sounds as celebratory as the New Testament’s joyful narrative. For example, “Unto us a child IS born,” and “Arise, shine, for thy Light IS come!” would both be texts appropriate for a congregation to hear during a Christmas celebration.

The solution I’m running with is to use the Old Testament texts for the Advent portion, and the New Testament for the Christmas, which places the division after "For Unto Us a Child is Born." The Pastoral Symphony and everything that follows it would be offered on Christmas Eve, everything before it during Advent.

A practical consideration: this leaves only two choruses for my choir to sing on Christmas Eve (along with two arias, four recits, and the symphony.) What if I left "For Unto Us”, with its present tense Messianic birth proclamations for Christmas Eve? If so, the Advent portion ends with the vaguely grim bass aria "The People that Walked in Darkness."

So, I think I will transplant a chorus from Part Two into “my” Advent portion: "Lift Up Your Heads." This trio with chorus is fittingly uplifting for the end of the lengthy Advent portion we’ll be extracting (in fact, the longest single chunk we will sing this year), and allows my choir to sing the closing movement. The text is also one we often hear in Advent: "Lift Up Your Heads, O ye Gates... and the King of Glory shall come in." From the Psalms, and a hymn text by Georg Weissel (1642).

This solves a practical consideration AND helps me find a home for a movement of Part Two, which (I am quickly discovering) is the hardest to plan liturgically. Finally, the crafty teacher in me is a little pleased that the congregation will hear something they are not expecting on Advent II.

Friday, August 22, 2008

which year?

My original idea was to begin this project with the start of the new liturgical year in Advent 2008. However, there are a few choruses which I think will go on World Communion Sunday or other fall dates. I don't know if I have the patience to wait until October 2009 to do those (and thus complete the cycle.)
Liturgical Year means we will start with the first movement of Messiah, and the choir will have more rehearsal time. Using the School Year means we start sooner, with a movement other than the Overture. votes?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

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We fixed the settings so that anyone may comment now. Our mistake! Just click on "Comments" to weigh in on a specific post.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Cast of characters

My choir is a church choir in a liberal Protestant denomination. The church is relatively small (100-150 per Sunday) and quite old (nearing 300 years.) It is located in a rather affluent suburb of a major American city. The choir is ambitious, well-supported financially, and generally pretty dedicated to its music ministry. It is facing the same issues as many church choirs; the most dedicated members, for example, are growing older. (Really, I suppose we all are growing older.) In my time here, we have picked up a few new members- but lost an equal number to "retirement" or moving away.

I am starting my fifth year as Director of Music at this church, which I do in addition to my public school teaching in another town in the area.

Our organist is an unusual figure. She has served as a church organist much of her life, and we have been pleased to have her on board for about four years. However, her primary vocation is professor of liturgy at a major university. What an asset, to have an organist who is a fount of knowledge on church history, theology, hymnody, psalmody, etc. etc. While I have worked with many professionals who have held their own in these areas, it is great fun to have an international authority on the bench.

My wife is a musician with a degree in theology. (It’s nice to know I can’t go too far wrong with two theologians looking over my shoulder.) She directs our Junior Choir and also holds down the alto and/or tenor sections in the Senior Choir when needed. She is my blog editor and co-conspirator in this project. As with much of what I conduct, this project is taking shape through extended, rambling discussion between the two of us.

Our church has been in a long interim period that will, we hope, be coming to an end this fall. This church and the denomination in general are very free of liturgical convention to begin with, so our worship has been suffering a bit without the liturgical leadership a settled pastor can help provide. My hope is that our project may be a thread of constancy in our worship while everything else is changing.

I wonder what the newly-appointed minister’s opinion will be of my Handel-heavy worship planning for the year?

Shaw (not that one) on Messiah

George Bernard Shaw:

"Handel is a sacred institution. When his Messiah is performed, the audience stands up, as if in church, while the Hallelujah chorus is being sung. It is the nearest sensation to the elevation of the Host known to English Protestants.
... Yet in England his music is murdered by the tradition of the big chorus! People think that four thousand singers must be four thousand times as impressive as one. This is a mistake: they are not even louder.
...You can get a tremendously powerful fortissimo from twenty good singers, because you can get twenty people into what is for practical purposes the same spot... but all the efforts of the conductors to get a fortissimo from the four thousand Handel Festival choristers are in vain... the sound takes an appreciable time to travel along a battle front four thousand strong; and in rapid passages the semiquaver of the singer farthest from you does not reach you until that of the signer nearest you has passed you by."

Note that he said "conductors"- plural. Most of these huge festival performances has auxiliary conductors. Shaw also proposes making a capital offense out of performing Messiah with more than 80 musicians in total. (Quoted in The Messiah Book: The Life and Times of Handel's Greatest Hit. Peter Jacobi, St. Martin's Press, 1982)

After considering this sage advice, I have canceled the additional 3,000 voices and will stick with my hearty church choir of 16.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Buying a new recording

So, the two recordings I own having their own charms and faults, I have decided to get another performance. I do hope to hear recommendations from others- I will probably end up buying several new performances.

I decided to seek out a John Eliot Gardiner recording. While I am not a purist, I became a huge fan of JEG and the Monteverdi Choir when I obtained their recordings of the six late Haydn Masses. Robust, colorful singing with tempi that seemed just right at every turn made these Masses (previously unfamiliar to me) jump off of the page. (Someday, I hope to conduct those, too. Difficult orchestral writing, though- better not even dream of it at the high school.)

Clearly Handel and Haydn are not the same composer, but I imagine the same spirit suffuses the late post-Creation Haydn that typified his colleague from 60 years earlier.

Imagine my surprise when I saw the album artwork and realized: this is the CD Mom played in the car when I was a kid! So, that settles that: JEG gets a little more of my money.

What other recordings should I hear? Which do you admire-or, if the mood strikes you, which do you detestt?

The recordings I own

As familiar with Messiah as I feel, there are only 2 recordings in my house and I don't listen to either of them with regularity. As I mentioned, I hear plenty of Messiah performed live in this area as it is. About these 'old' recordings:

The first is billed as "Handel, arr. Mozart: Messiah” Huddersfield Choral Society, BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Harry Christophers. 1997. I received this recording from BBC Music Magazine several years ago. If you are not familiar with the Mozart "edition", the trombones make quite an impression! This is particularly startling at the start of the bass aria "The People That Walked in Darkness." Hearing music so familiar but with this unexpected burst of sound reminds me of the first time I heard Robert Levin’s completion of Mozart's Requiem.

One notable performance detail in this English recording: some of the most complex choral writing is turned over to the soloists. For example, in "For Unto Us a Child is Born", the soloists begin the vocal lines, joined by the full chorus at "Wonderful... ." I had never heard such a thing before nor have I come across it anywhere else. It does add an element of structure to a chorus that may be slogged through laboriously by unpolished singers. Hearing this, I am tempted to show mercy to my own singers and spare them from those florid lines by assigning them to our soloists. I will have to do more research into this practice- is this just a Harry Christophers quirk? Or a Huddersfield tradition?

The second recording, which I gained by marriage, is by "Vienna Boys Choir, Chorus Viennensis, and the Academy of London, conducted by Peter Marschik." 1999. Yes, the world famous boys covering the treble voices, a recording my wife saw on a clearance rack and bought as a novelty. This performance has a few quite Romantic tempo changes near the end of choruses... sometimes thoughtfully reflecting the text, but often too abrupt for me.

Our favorite feature of the performance, though, is the round, resonant but slightly accented English the native German-speaking boys sing with. I use this as reinforcement when teaching my own singers about foreign languages and the subtleties of their vowels. When the brilliant-toned soprano sings "Shout! O Daughter of Jerusalem,” the first vowel in the first word is altered just enough to cause gales of laughter among high schoolers and gain a PG-13 rating. What must our Bach cantatas sound like to them?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

An International Experience

I am very lucky to have entered the same profession as my mother, and to have lived abroad thanks to my father.

When I was a third grader, my family moved to Germany. (My father was in the Air Force.) We were stationed at a NATO air base- not an American air base, but an international detachment where my father flew with Germans, Norwegians, Turks, Italians, etc. etc. Soon my mom was directing music for the little Base chapel, leading the "Protestant" services. (Perhaps later I can take a detour to tell some stories about that unusual congregation: Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Pentecostals, Quakers, and other Protestant Christians sharing worship together!)

Ever the ambitious programmer, mom decided one year it was time to perform the Advent/Christmas portions of Messiah. This became an annual event, and by our last December in Germany- 1989- the chorus numbered over 100 members of nearly a dozen nationalities. We performed with a Dutch orchestra from the area, and the performances were held in the large church in Geilenkirchen, Germany. That 1989 performance was recorded and broadcast by the BBC.

I unwittingly internalized most of that score while Mom listened to it in the car every day. The first time I got to sing in the performance, I was an alto, then a tenor, eventually a bass. I am grateful for that, too, as I have a greater appreciation for the inner voices, having experienced Messiah as everything except a soprano.

This was a profound musical experience, but a profound international one as well. Music as the "international language" is a terrible cliche, but this was one experience where I, even as a grade-schooler, could appreciate our common bond around Handel.

Which edition to use? Please weigh in...

A predictable question, with some familiar concerns.

It’s time to buy myself a score (I love this part!) Because this is Messiah, I imagine I may be using this score twenty times over the next fifty years, and I want it to be the 'best' one. That has been (maybe still is) the Watkins Shaw edition (that worn vocal score is sitting on my shelf), though I’ve heard of several others gaining favor recently. And complicating matters, the church owns the G. Schirmer vocal scores. No orchestra parts, though, which I will have to buy or borrow.

So there are many variables to consider:
  • Any edition I buy will have to be compatible with the Schirmer vocal score.
  • The style of the continuo writing is a factor- I have been warned away from Schirmer for that reason, and we will use continuo for at least some of the performances. Others, though, will require a playable reduction for organ alone.
  • Of course, there are the varying orchestrations (i.e. Mozart's addition of trombones, etc.)
  • Above all, is my desire to prepare and mark my score for use in the far future. I don’t want to choose an overall inferior score though it may be useful for the particular circumstances of this year’s project.
If I were a touch richer, I would follow some advice I got from a teacher last year: she suggested that I buy my own orchestral parts to every full score I buy. That way I can mark them to my liking and take them with me wherever I go. Good advice, but hard on the budget, since full scores alone are already a major expense.

Of course, our friends at have discussed this before:

If you have anything to add or declare, please do so!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

I suppose it started when I didn't get that other job.

There was a community chorus music director opening- which I would have taken in addition to my school and church choirs- which included an annual Messiah concert. As I sent in the application, the idea of Messiah loomed large in my head. I know it well, as do most choral musicians, but have yet to conduct more than an occasional single movement, and I started to do some serious thinking about how I might approach the complete work.

When "that other job" didn't pan out, I wondered if I could program Messiah at school or at church. Not likely. We live in a Messiah-rich city, where many groups (some of them world-renowned) present the complete Messiah every December. In addition to the market saturation drawback, preparing and presenting the entire oratorio on a single occasion would be a great strain on my amateur choirs.

This project doesn't seem particularly bold or brilliant, although we've never heard of Messiah being done this way before.

Here is the plan: to present all the music from Messiah this year. Not in a concert, but in worship, and spread thematically throughout the liturgical year.

Not necessarily in a sequential way, either- we are not simply singing the three parts on three different Sundays. There will be large excerpts, of course, in Advent, on Christmas Eve, Holy Week, Easter Sunday... but there is a LOT of Messiah. 53 movements, to be exact and many liturgically unique Sundays to program. What might we sing for Pentecost? Ascension? Good Shepherd Sunday?

Neither will the orchestrations be uniform. Some will be choir with organ in reduction. Some will involve orchestral players or hired soloists- but also our resident soloists, volunteer brass, and perhaps the professional brass quintet that we are lucky to have on Christmas Eve.
Messiah- not as a concerted work, but as a yearlong journey. After all, the work is unique in this style. It is an oratorio about faith- while the movements tell a story, they aren't really driven by action. Imagine trying to make sense of this project with a work like Elijah. Or the Passions which are bound to two specific weeks of the Christian calendar.

Why blog? Well, it seems like a convenient way to document this project. And as I go through this first time of preparing, teaching, and conducting Messiah, I imagine the community of conductors may have a lot to add, or suggest, or challenge. Some of you may have brilliant ideas for linking movements to the liturgical calendar. There may be some warnings about pitfalls inherent in the score. Or recommendations of your favorite performances.

Because it is perhaps the most famous piece of choral music in the world the potential audience for this blog is very large- who doesn't know and love Messiah and want to talk about it?