Messiah is a sublime masterpiece! And I realised this as I watched the Easter performance of Britain’s well-loved and respected choir. It was the perfect way to spend Good Friday afternoon.
The Royal Choral Society has performed the magnificent Handel’s Messiah every year on Good Friday since 1876, and it is one of London’s great Easter traditions. This year marks the choir’s 140th year Messiah concert at the Royal Albert Hall, and it was indeed a performance on the grand scale.
Handel composed Messiah in less than a month somewhere between August and September 1741. He got the lyrics from a preacher named Charles Jennens, who wrote out the whole piece of Bible verses taken from the King James Version designed to tell a story about the Messiah: the first part prophesied the birth of Jesus Christ; the second exalted Christ’s sacrifice for humankind; and the final section acclaimed His resurrection.
The opening aria, “Comfort Ye, Comfort Ye, My People” (Isaiah 40:1-3) was so beautiful. It was gloriously sung and played. My favourites were the ones taken from Isaiah 9:6, “For unto us a Child is born” and Revelation 5:12, 13, “Worthy is the Lamb”. Interestingly, everyone stood up when the choir started singing the “Hallelujah” chorus. Taken from Revelation 19:6, 11:15, 19:16, “Hallelujah! for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth. The Kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ: and He shall reign for ever and ever. King of kings, Lord of lords.” Apparently, it’s a tradition started by King George II. As royal protocol demands that whenever the monarch stands, so does everyone as a sign of respect. Hence, the entire audience as well as the orchestra stood too, initiating a tradition that continues to this very day. The Hallelujah chorus clearly exalts Jesus Christ as the King of Kings. In standing, King George II accepts that he too is subject to Lord of lords.
Remarkably, the balance between the orchestra, soloists and the large choir is incredible. The soloists can be heard against the orchestra and the various sections of the choir are all distinct and with a very clear diction. Even when the choir is singing its loudest, they still have that superb and clean sound. And there’s just something phenomenal about a large choir, a huge forces singing in hushed tones, and a full orchestra rising to a full throated crescendo. The voices have a clarity and sharpness in the best English choral tradition. Strange to relate to unless you’ve watched the performance live.
The final chorus “Amen” sounded magnificent, and as the whole ensemble sang together finishing on a buoyant note, there was a tremendous cheer from the audience. I can’t help thinking that part of the jubilation was the fact that everyone has gotten away sitting through a ‘not-easy-to-understand’ Scripture passages being sung.
I’ve listened to Messiah recordings several times before and meant to watch the live performance since I moved to London but didn’t get around to actually doing it until yesterday. While watching the oratorio, I’d once in a while look at the lyrics and my thoughts were flooded with Biblical verses. It made me think about the relevance of the Messiah to the world we live in today. Having watched The BBC Proms, Madame Butterfly and other play/concert at the Royal Albert Hall, Handel’s Messiah is by far the most impressive, profoundly compelling and indeed, a thought-provoking performance. It was absolutely superb from beginning to end!
Though I personally feel that it was not easy to sit through for two and a half hours even with a twenty minute break in between, yet it truly was glorious listening to scripture being sung. And it’s a memorable experience to hear such a mighty choir. I am eagerly looking forward to hopefully watching their future performances.
Featured Image: RAH. Royal Choral Society in front of the Royal Albert Hall