Post #496: How to sing Handel’s Messiah, $6.99 plus tax.

This is the first of a series of articles on things unrelated to the Town of Vienna

Source:  Amazon.com.

Background:  Why?

My wife tends to get a tune “stuck in her head”.  I’m sure many or most of you share that experience, from time to time.  You hear some familiar tune on the radio, and for the next few hours or days, it becomes a part of your life.  Whether you like it or not.

This makes the holiday season something of a special ordeal for her.  She is subject to a constant barrage of Christmas Muzak pretty much no matter where she goes.  Worse, much of it is familiar from her childhood.  And much of it is utter crap.  Which then gets stuck in her head for days on end.

A few Christmas seasons back, she snapped.  I think the immediate cause was  back-to-back recordings of “The Little Drummer Boy”.   One parum-pa-pum over the line.  But more realistically, it was probably the cumulative Xmas Muzak exposure that got her.  She had reached her limit.

She turned to me and announced what we were going to go sing Handel’s Messiah.  If she had to have Xmas music stuck in her head, it might as well be classy, Scripture-based Xmas music.

And so our holiday tradition was born.  We now attend four or five Messiah sing-alongs every year.  It helps us get through the holiday season, and stay a little more centered on the non-commercial aspects of it.  And it drives that @#@# drummer boy right out of our heads.

Oddly, this decision greatly perturbed our daughter.  It took us some time to get her to say why, but it turns out she was afraid we’d gone all super-religious in our dotage.  She thought that maybe we’d joined a cult of some sort.  Far from it, we assured her.  We are not religious people, we just like the tunes.  Though I have to say, amidst the relentless commercialization of Xmas, it’s heartening to stand among a bunch of believers and sing that ancient story.


What and where:  It’s more than just the Hallelujah Chorus

Handel’s Messiah, written more than 250 years ago, is an oratorio using passages from the Bible to tell the story of the life of Jesus.  In a nutshell, it covers Christmas and Easter, although few groups sing the Easter portion of it (other than the Hallelujah Chorus).

In practical terms, the story of Christmas is sung by soloists, punctuated by choruses, where everybody sings.  Of which the Hallelujah Chorus is the most famous.  The baroque musical form sounds truly ancient almost all of the time, which is only appropriate, given that it was written in 1741.  A typical performance of the Christmas portion of Messiah takes about an hour and a half, ending, of course, with the Hallelujah Chorus.

Sometime in the last century, somebody got the idea of having the audience (or church congregation) sing the choruses.  And so the Messiah sing-along came into being.  You show up and become a part of the chorus.

In the DC area, you have numerous choices for Messiah sing-alongs, starting around December 1 and (typically) ending with the Kennedy Center Messiah sing-along in the days just prior to Christmas itself.  These events are about as different from one another as you can possibly imagine.  I can’t claim to have attended them all, but I’ve now been to quite a few.  Let me describe four of them.

If you are just starting out, the best one for you is the Reston Chorale’s Messiah, in Saint John Neumann Catholic Church.  It is a very forgiving, generally unskilled audience of enthusiastic amateurs. The soloists may be amateurs or professionals, depending on the year, and there is no orchestra (only an organ).  If you are unsure of your singing skill, or simply want to see what one of these is like, that’s probably the best one to attend.  By contrast, if you know how to sing Messiah, your presence will be greatly appreciated.  This year’s sing-along will be Tuesday, December 17th, at 7 PM in Saint John Neumann church in Reston.  I feel a special attachment to this one because I started out with it, back when I really couldn’t sing my part at all.  Casual dress is fine.  You’ll need to buy a ticket, but as I recall it’s not at all expensive.  I believe they’ll lend or rent you a musical score if you don’t already have one.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Kennedy Center’s Messiah Sing-Along.   It’s the most well-known and by far the largest such event in the DC area.  The concert hall is huge, it will be packed, they have a full orchestra, a 200-person chorus, and nationally-recognized soloists.  The audience for that one is peppered with really powerful singers, along with amateurs like myself.  This is one of the few places where they do both the Christmas and Easter portions of the work.  It’s a big secular spectacle, but for me, it’s just too big.  I did that once, and don’t feel a strong desire to do that again.  The performance is Monday, December 23 2019 at 6 PM, and lasts about three hours.  You will, however, have to show up well before 4:30 PM to line up to get tickets if you want to be assured a seat.  As I recall, you will need to bring your own copy of the music — see next section.

In the DC area, I believe that the longest-running (and in my mind best) such event is at the Clarendon United Methodist Church.  They’ve been singing this annually for many years.  (It’s too late to attend this year’s performance, but next year will be their 50th year.)  The outstanding thing about it is that it’s in a traditional, plain Methodist church, packed with an audience of great amateur singers, most of whom are church members.  There’s nothing overpowering, just a church full of people who share a belief, know the parts, and can really sing.  They fill that church with music.  It’s a sound that you seldom get to experience, and I find that every year, I am glad to have been part of it.  They have musical scores available for those who don’t have one.

Music In McLean’s Messiah is put on by St. Luke Catholic Church in McLean.  They, too, have already had their sing-along for the year.  Unlike others, they do selections from the Christmas and Easter portions.  It’s an enormous modern church, they always have full orchestra, top-drawer soloists, and their full choir singing along, and they have the largest pipe organ that I have ever seen in a working church.  It is quite a spectacle.  With that large space, it seems under-attended, particularly given the high quality of the music.  And the audience is quite mixed.  This year, the fellow in the pew ahead of me said he hadn’t sung this in a couple of decades, but he clearly kept up.  The guy next to me claimed he had been tossed out of the last chorus he had been in, and after hearing him, I believed him.  Musical scores are available.

This is by no means an exhaustive list.  Just four that I could do off the top of my head.


How?

When I agreed to my wife’s crazy demand request to sing Messiah, I had never sung in a chorus, could not (and still can’t) read bass clef, and for sure had never sung Messiah before.  And yet, a few years later, I’m one of the anchors of the bass section no matter were I go.

If you can read music even a little bit, and maybe even if you can’t, you can do that too.  It’s not hard.  Here’s the method.

First, get a set of recordings to train by.  These stereo recordings will split your part (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) onto one track, and then everybody else on the other.  Listening to them is like standing in a chorus next to a really strong singer who is singing you part.  All you have to do is learn to follow along  Oddly, the (very dated) midi-based recordings that I downloaded years ago are still available on this website.  They are no great shakes, and you could undoubtedly find something that sounds better now.  But these are literally the recordings I used to learn my part.  These can be downloaded free.

Next, get a copy of the music.  (This assumes you can read music, to some degree.)  You can almost certainly find a copy in a used book shop, or shell out $6.99 on Amazon.  The musical score has all the parts.  I strongly suggest you take out a highlighter and highlight your part, because it’s easy to get lost among all the lines of music.

One nice aspect of this is that (almost) everyone uses the exact same musical score.  So if you’re not sure what page you are supposed to be on, in a sing-along, all you have to do is look at the score of the person next to you.

Finally, plug in your headphones and follow along.  The score has all of the music (for the soloists and the choruses), while the recordings only have the choruses.  I suggest you dog-ear the pages of the choruses.  Maybe start with the Hallelujah Chorus, because everybody has heard it and most people think they know it.  Maybe keep a pencil in hand as you go through it, to make notes.

Aside from the Hallelujah Chorus, for the Christmas section, you only have to learn six pieces of music (numbered 4, 7, 9, 12, 17, 21), ending with by far the hardest one, “His Yoke is Easy”.  (The standard joke is that the yoke is easy, the song sure ain’t).

Other than that, everything is optional.  If you can’t sing one of the choruses, then don’t.  If you can’t sing the fast parts, ditto.  If you only want to sing the Hallelujah Chorus — and plenty of people do just that — then just sing that.  Generally, these things don’t attract a very judgy crowd.

Don’t expect to be perfect your first time out.  Relax and listen to the music.  Let it drive the relentless commercialism of Xmas out of your head for a while.  And stand and sing, as you are able.