A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler

A Singer’s Notes, 8: On Handel’s Messiah

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Charlotte Hellekant
Charlotte Hellekant

How many times have you heard “Messiah” sung? I reckon I have sung it at least 50 times, and maybe 5 of those were dramatic in any direct way. Why is this? Several reasons. The choruses are fun to sing. Any amount of imprecision is condoned in a kind of Yuletide lassitude. It is familiar. Are the tunes really all that good, or do we just know them well? It fits into almost any kind of Christian ritual. Amateur singers, who sing the overwhelming majority of performances, already know the notes. Only the soprano and bass solo roles are really technically demanding. The list goes on. I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding of this piece. “Messiah” is not a churchy piece. It should not be an entirely comfortable piece. Is there a more harrowing depiction of loneliness in all of Western art than the unaccompanied passages in “He Was Despised”? Doesn’t the blazing aggressive grandeur of the final chorus nearly frighten, like the end of the Gloria in the Missa Solemnis of Beethoven? Don’t we often miss what is the limited exuberance of the Hallelujah Chorus (the third part of the oratorio is still to come), when it ends most Christmastide performances? I certainly do not want to take away anyone’s joy, and joy there is, in singing this piece. I am suggesting that we should approach the metaphysical drama of “Messiah” from a stage-worthy angle.

Handel was through and through an operatic artist. He spent the majority of his life among highly paid professional singers, and made the rigidities of opera seria into a drama that really cuts. He expected more than professionalism from his singers. He was after a kind of dazzling virtuosity. He, like Mozart and Verdi after him, was a composer who again and again emphasized the primacy of the words. “He Was Despised” was written for a great speaking actress, a tragedian. With great tenderness he made her into a magnificent singer by tailoring the marvellous “He Was Despised” precisely to her skills and causing us as listeners not to notice her limited range. He knew the aforementioned unaccompanied passages would be sung by Susannah Cibber with a fundamental identification, not withstanding the actress’s own difficult history. It is great singing acting that was at the center of Handel’s musical life.

I offer to you an example of this which I hope will have two purposes. I want it to make you imagine what a performance of “Messiah” would be if every number was at this level of identification and intensity, if there were no long gaps between numbers, if the chorus were fleet and fluent, if the conductor shaped all three parts as operatic acts, not just one number after another. If all singers involved including the choristers said the words like Lotte. Yes, this is the same Charlotte Hellekant I extolled in my last address to you (full disclosure- she is an old friend) My second purpose is to whet your appetite to see and hear her performance next March of Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” with the Berlin Philharmonic.

1 thought on “A Singer’s Notes, 8: On Handel’s Messiah

  1. As a singer in two groups, one professional and one decidedly amateur, that each perform Messiah at least twice a year, I truly appreciate the comments posted by Keith Kibler on the piece. Performed quickly and – for the most part – lightly, it is a wonderfully dramatic piece of operatic work that can be remarkably difficult to perform but which appears to the audience to flow with ease. It’s long, running about 2.75 hours at a fast clip and with one intermission, but audiences always agree that “Worthy is the Lamb” was worth the wait.

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