Singing The Messiah

· music · culture ·

Good old George Frideric Handel! He really knew how to write for choirs. Last weekend, my Mum and I took part in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) ‘Singalong’ of Handel’s Messiah. We’ve done a couple of other Singalongs together, and have really enjoyed the experience. Mum is a particular fan of the Messiah, and I sang it in the choir at school, so we both jumped at the chance of joining in with this one.

The idea of the Singalong is that huge numbers of keen but amateur choral singers pitch up at Symphony Hall at lunchtime on Sunday. Simon Halsey (the conductor for the day and Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus) leads a rehearsal with the piano, followed by a rehearsal with the orchestra. We (the singers) then get a short break to catch our breath before we all give a performance in the evening. Because there are so many singers, and the audience is mostly made up of friends and family, the usual seating arrangement is reversed, with the ‘choir’ in the stalls and circle, and the audience in the choir seats behind the orchestra.

Simon Halsey is both brilliant and entertaining. He manages to keep us all together (just about — we altos got repeatedly told off for lagging behind) and throws in some great anecdotes. He told one this time about the grandeur of the bathrooms in Royal palaces, the payoff of which was that if you ever get invited to a Royal palace, make sure you use the bathroom. It’s an enormous privilege to sing with the brilliant CBSO backing you, and to hear the professional soloists they bring in to do the arias.

Poor Mum was suffering from the tail end of a very bad cold, and had only just recovered her voice. We went armed with tissues, water and cough sweets, and she did very well, only going slightly croaky in a few places. I remembered why I had enjoyed singing the Messiah at school so much. The harmonies are lovely and Handel wrote the alto parts very kindly so that we don’t have to go up to high. In places, we also get to sing like big, butch tenors too, which is fun. Most of the melodies are fairly straightforward, and the only really difficult parts are the twiddly baroque bits1. If (like Mum and me) you can’t read music properly, you end up just going for it and hoping that it’s approximately right — what are a few semi-quavers between friends, anyway? At least the twiddly bits have a predictable pattern, so for the non-sight-readers, you eventually learn what the pattern sounds like, and all is well. There are also some lovely, grand chords to sing. I think if singing “Wonderful! Counsellor!” in ‘For Unto Us’ doesn’t put a smile on your face and joy in your heart, there’s no hope for you.

All of the soloists were wonderful, but I must just single out the tenor for particular praise2. I’m normally a fan of the bass voice rather than the tenor, but he had an outstandingly beautiful voice (if you are allowed to use the adjective ‘beautiful’ about a man’s voice). It was interesting, because in our scores, we could see the parts laid out for the soloists as well, and see the suggested variations or ornamentations for particular phrases. In ‘Comfort Ye My People’, there’s a very complicated (twiddly) ornamentation suggested for the phrase “Comfort Ye”. I was delighted to find that this tenor decided to forgo the opportunity to show off, and sang it unornamented. I was going to write “sang it plainly” there, but that doesn’t do it justice. He held the note very simply, but gave it such beautiful, lyrical dynamics that I couldn’t help actually sighing each time he sang it. “Comfort Ye”. It was like someone stroking your hair gently, or putting a warm and comforting hand on your shoulder. Lovely.

I think that the concert went pretty well in the end. The audience even gave us a spontaneous round of applause for the ‘Halleluljah’ Chorus, so we must have made a reasonable job of it. Actually, I had no idea before last weekend about the context of that chorus in the Messiah. I had previously thought of it as something celebratory, but it’s actually quite dark and a bit fire-and-brimstone-y, coming as it does after an aria all about smiting and smashing the unbelievers to pulp. It’s really more of a choral apocalypse than a celebration, but — perversely — that has made me like it more. So perhaps the audience were applauding out of fear: 900 or so singers blasting the Hallelujah Apocalypse at you must be a bit terrifying.

  1. It’s possible that ’twiddly baroque bit’ is not the correct nomenclature. ↩︎

  2. I wish I could remember his name. I seem to have lost the programme, too, so I can’t look it up. ↩︎