It wouldn’t be the holiday season without Handel’s Messiah. But from shopping mall flash mobs to silent monks, how does one explain the choral work’s enduring appeal?
Indeed, the oratorio wasn’t originally envisaged as a holiday tradition, but as a “microcosm of Christian doctrine and faith” intended for Lent and Easter. When it was first performed in 1742 — with a libretto designed with pieces from the New and Old Testaments by Charles Jennens — it premiered in Dublin since London theatre still considered George Frideric Handel’s music to be “profane” and “subversive”.
Even though Handel originally intended that piece for small-scale chorus, it actually became a tradition to present “Messiah” with such large forces in the mid 1800s. Writer & critic George Bernard Shaw noted that “the stale wonderment which the great chorus never fails to elicit has already been already exhausted.” (Indeed, this criticism is similar to today’s regarding “Messiah” as a holiday tradition: classical music critic Alex Ross once referred to a New York City season of 21 performances as “numbing repetition”.)
Despite that, we’re intrigued by how the internet has somehow allowed us to re-discover contemporary re-interpretations and yes, even the amateur choral societies of today.
Henceforth, 5 Very Different Versions of Handel’s Messiah:
#1 The Roches — Messiah (1982)
Recognized in contemporary folk music circles for their lush harmonies and quirky lyrics, The Roches originally performed this live on Saturday Night Live in 1979. Their sisters — who got their big break singing back-up for Paul Simon — offer a take that is noted for its “New Jersey vowel placement and rhotic excesses”.