Handel's great oratorio Messiah is a powerful work. Many of us involved in the Sing-Along can relate how this piece of music has affected our lives in some way. We have reproduced some of those stories here. If you have a poignant or interesting story of the Messiah, please send it to us in an e-mail for possible inclusion on this page.
My first memory of the Hallelujah Chorus is when I was a little boy. My parents took us to see the movie, "The Greatest Story Ever Told," about the life of Jesus Christ. The movie ends with Jesus ascending to heaven after the resurrection, and as the credits roll the music is the Hallelujah Chorus. It's glorious!
For many years after that my idea of heaven was a place where you sing the Hallelujah Chorus forever and ever. Your voice never gets tired, you never miss a note, and as you keep turning pages the music just gets more wonderful and magnificent and holy until you feel that your heart will burst with the sheer joy of praising God!
I went to Nicaragua in February 1994 on a work trip with Habitat for Humanity. We spent a week building houses in the town of Jinotega. I spoke some Spanish, but we also had an interpreter named Luis Arroliga from Managua who traveled and worked with us. One evening, as we sat around in one of the houses under its just-finished roof, we were talking about singing in choirs. I've sung in church choirs since I was about 4 years old. It turned out that Luis also sang in choirs in Nicaragua, in churches and schools. I am a bass and he is a tenor. Another woman, Ana, turned out to be a soprano. We found that the three of us knew Handel. Great! Together the three of us sang the Hallelujah Chorus that evening, from memory, as best as we could. It was so much fun to join together in praise and song that evening in a strange place, under a newly-built tin roof, while palm trees and banana trees swayed to the breeze outside. Handel would be happy to know that his greatest chorus is still celebrated in song to the ends of the earth!
Bob Arentz is the director of the Boulder Messiah Chorale and Orchestra. Although in his own words he is "not particularly religious," the Messiah touches him deeply. His first experience was 20 years ago, when he was asked to turn pages for the organist in a Messiah performance. As the chords of the Hallelujah Chorus swelled and grew, he was overcome with emotion at the power and majesty of what he was hearing all around him. By the time the final "Hallelujah" rang out, tears were streaming down his cheeks. He decided then to conduct a public sing-along of the Messiah, and these concerts are held every year in Boulder around Christmas time. Bob knows that there is something deep and powerful and wonderful behind this music, and he wants to be a part of that.
We relate this story by reprinting an exchange of e-mail messages:
Bob [Arentz] -
Once upon a time you told a story about the Hallelujah Chorus. It was sung together by American prisoners of war and their German guards on a train during the Second World War. I want to pass along this story and a few others to our pastor at the Light of Christ Anglican Church.
Like any good historian, I want to check my facts. Do you remember your source for the story?
Yup. A guy named Ross Something. First person to make a donation to the Choir. Was a bomber pilot in WWII. Was shot down during a famous raid over an oil refinery named something like "Ploetsi" in what is now I think Romania. Was being transferred between POW camps that winter in train cars that separated the prisoners from their guards by a single strand of barbed wire. Security was a post-mounted machine gun on the guard's side of the wire. The guards all had a small coal-fired stove on their side of the wire for a little heat. Some of the prisoners were German-speaking Lutherans from Wisconsin. A scared young prisoner started singing in English to boost his spirits and one of the guards joined in German. Some dialogue went back and forth, other tunes were offered up, pretty soon it was just a train car of frightened men rolling through the bleakness of a snowy night in the middle of a war all working through their individual fears by reaching out to whatever they could touch via the media music. Started out with hymns at first and then other songs once the common works were used up. Messiah came up at the end of the process and Hallelujah was the last song that they all mostly knew. It just happened to come to mind about the time the train pulled into its final destination. The music ended, the train stopped, the doors opened, the cold and snow poured in, everyone went back to their respective roles in that hideous act, the wire suddenly became a fence, and the gun a deadly presence. Thus goes the world. Bob.
Note from Carl: Allied planes made bombing raids on the oil fields and refineries at Ploesti, Romania on June 11, 1942; August 1, 1943 (the most famous one); and May-August 1944.
This story is from Handel himself. He wrote the entire Messiah over an intense period of composition from August 22 to September 14, 1741. From the program notes written in 2000 by Bob Arentz, "He [Handel] worked long hours, sometimes an entire day, with little food or water. He wrote that after completing the Hallelujah chorus he fell asleep, head upon the table, and had a vision where 'he saw God and the Heavens and the Angels arrayed before him.' Not hard to believe when you hear the music."
My first sing along Messiah was 1988 in Boulder, and it brought back to me some of my favorite memories of my Father singing parts from the Messiah during the Christmas Season, but my greatest treat from Handel's Messiah was to come in the Winter of 1990.
Six months of only Danish and little hope of even a simple Child's Christmas Carol in one's mother tongue, leaves one resigned to accept the consolation of the Jule-Tide season's imbibitions, listening and drinking in, but not satisfied by the strange words being sung to some of the familiar melodies. An invitation extended to a fellow lost soul, a Dutch friend, to attend a Handel's Messiah performance was heartily accepted, although the Dutch friend did well to dampen one's spirit by insisting, with glee, that Handel was German and the performance that night would surely be in German. Certainly one might be called a fool or a novice to believe that somehow the Glorious King James Text of Handel's Messiah could be reproduced and sung in a language other than English, but when one is presented with the Danish Text of Handel's Messiah, as one is seated for the performance, the last month's disorientation, caused by the familiar Christmas tunes sung in unfamiliar languages, might indeed haunt the expectations for the evening's performance. The Overture beautifully played, the moment of truth approached. Would Handel's Messiah be just as sweet if sung in any other language, who knows; but that night the performance was a special gift, in English, for the one native English speaker in the audience, who savored every word, as much as anybody, anywhere, who has ever been far away from home at Christmas.
From the book "Real Men Don't Rehearse", Chapter 2, by Justin Locke:
I am very proud to say that I once played for Arthur Fiedler. He was quite a character. Many books have been written about him, but none of them include the following, which is my favorite Arthur Fiedler story:
The Boston Pops plays concerts in Symphony Hall almost every night in May and June, and it sells lots of individual tickets to those concerts. It also does a brisk business selling large blocks of seats each night to various groups. Sometimes those group sales are so large they take up every seat in Symphony Hall. To give you an example, on one night a local university might buy out every seat in the hall for their 25th reunion. On another night a local corporation might buy every seat for a concert and give them to their customers or employees. Some nights a convention would be in town and they will buy out every seat for their attendees. Whenever the audience was made up of one group like that, Arthur always tried to come up with a piece of music that was appropriate for them in some way.
One night, the American Guild of Organists was in town for their convention, and they had bought out the Hall. This meant that every single person in the audience that night was a professional organist. For this crowd, it was obvious that the "concerto" portion of the concert should be an organ concerto. To play the concerto, our guest soloist was E. Power Biggs. I suppose most people don't remember this any more, but in the mid-20th century, E. Power Biggs was the most famous organist in the USA. E. Power Biggs. What a fabulous name for an organ player.
"E." was getting on in years, but they managed to get him out onto the stage for what turned out to be his last public appearance with an orchestra. It was a fairly short little concerto, though, so we needed to stretch that part of the concert with an encore. But there aren't that many short pieces for organ and orchestra, so coming up with an encore took a little imagination.
What to do? Well, the members of the American Guild of Organists are all organists, of course. But by and large almost all of them are church organists, which means that almost all of them are also church choir directors. And we had 2400 of them out there in the audience. So what did Fiedler do for an encore? He pulled out the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah.
There was no chorus on the stage, but, as I said, we had 2400 choir directors out there in the audience. So Fiedler turned to the audience and, in his aging, gruff voice, said: "We have an encore for you. We're going to play the Hallelujah Chorus. And we need you to be the chorus." He turned away from the audience, and then, in a typical bit of Fiedler showmanship, he turned to the audience once more and said, "You all know it...?"
This got a chuckle from the audience. Since they were all church choir directors, every single one of them had conducted that piece hundreds of times, which meant that every one of them had the vocal parts memorized. So we started to play the Hallelujah Chorus-- with Arthur Fiedler, the Boston Pops, E. Power Biggs on the organ, and a 2200-voice choir, made up of professional choir directors. All this, in Symphony Hall, one of the finest acoustic spaces in the world.
As is tradition whenever the Hallelujah Chorus is played, everyone in the audience stood up. What was not tradition was that they all started to sing. Oh boy, did they sing. This gigantic chorus included at least 500 slightly inebriated bass-baritone singers, and when we got to the "King of kings" . . . oh my God. They just tore the roof off the joint. I played over 2,000 concerts in my professional bass playing career, and due to the zen of concentration that professional playing requires, I have few memories of specific moments in specific pieces on specific days. But that one, I remember. I still get chills when I think about it. It was totally unrehearsed, there was no audience to hear it, and it was one of the most remarkable performances I have ever been involved with in my entire life.
The above excerpt is Copyright 2005 by Justin Locke. Reprinted by permission given October 2005, to be renewed annually.
Did I ever tell you my story from a Boulder Messiah sing-along years ago? I'm not a sight-reader, but I'm good at pattern recognition. I figured out someone in the choir who sang the part I could sing, and kept my eyes riveted on him. When he sang, I sang. This went on for the whole performance. Near the end, though, when we were eye-to-eye getting ready to sing, he winked at me! Only then did I realize what it must have looked like to him: the whole churchful looking down at their scores and singing, and this one guy on the left who just kept looking up at him! Put that in your list of "Messiah Moments".
Chorus 37 is titled "The Lord Gave The Word", but is commonly recognized under the name "Preachers." The Basses lead off this chorus with what is known musically as an "exposed entrance." The orchestra plays a chord, there is a half-measure rest, and then the Basses are supposed to come in with a solid forte: "The Lord Gave The Word!"
Now, this is The LORD speaking. It is not some shepherd boy, it is not an earthly king, it is not a prophet, nor even a chorus of angels. This is The LORD God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth! That entrance is supposed to be LOUD!!! (to use a technical term).
But we were all afraid to come in. Bob Arentz had always given us a clear downbeat and a great cue. Yet - amidst all that silence and the audience looking at us and the vast open space of the Episcopal church, we were all afraid of committing vocal suicide by coming in a beat ahead of everyone else. And there one of us would be, hanging out all alone in the utter vacuum of empty musical space, there to endure several seconds of terrifying embarrassment until the vocal offender could crawl under his chair and die.
The result of this fear was a Bass entrance that was most un-Lord-like:
. . . m m m ord gave the Word!
Finally, one of the Basses could take it no longer. "Come on, you guys!" Gerry urged us at the dress rehearsal. "This is an easy entrance! We all know right where to come in! Just sing out as strong as you can, from the very first note! If someone commits vocal suicide - comes in early - the Basses will all promise to buy that person a beer at the bar afterwards! Do we have a deal, guys?"
"Yeah, yeah, Gerry! You've got a deal! Let's do this entrance right!" We all agreed that if some Bass came in at the wrong time on Chorus 37 by mistake, the rest of us would buy a round of drinks for that person. You can drown your sorrows and embarrassment in the frothy brew. It will be worth it!
On Saturday night during the concert, chorus 37 came up. The Moment of Truth was here. Bob gave the up-beat. The orchestra played the chord. Then came the half-beat rest, and a dozen Basses breathed as one.
THE LORD GAVE THE WORD ! ! !
The Soprano section in front of us visibly shook as the mighty vocal wave crashed over them. The front rows of the audience staggered back. Our sound went out unto the ends of the church. And Bob smiled up on his podium - that entrance really was The LORD!
Since then, the Basses have never had a problem coming in on Chorus 37.