George Frederic Handel composed his masterful oratorio, Messiah, in 1741. On Dec. 2 and 3, that oratorio will be performed for the 80th consecutive year at Ursinus in Bomberger Hall.
The annual tradition of the Messiah performances goes back to 1937 when it was inaugurated by a then Ursinus professor of music, Dr. William Phillip .
“Messiah is a huge calling,” said Dr. John French, head of Ursinus’ music department and the conductor for this year’s Messiah.
French explained that typically, oratorios like the Messiah were written and performed once or twice and then retired. Messiah, however, was a huge hit, leading it to be performed repeatedly across centuries.
“It’s had a long history, and it’s never stopped,” said French. “There are some pieces of music that were big, then were forgotten, and came back again. Messiah was always around and just stuck. Every major orchestra in the city does an annual Messiah performance.”
One of the reasons the Messiah has remained popular is because of its appeal as a choir concert with a story.
“Messiah is an oratorio,” said French, “[An oratorio is] very much like an opera: It’s hard to distinguish the two. Oratorios came along as a way for people to have theater music during times when there couldn’t be great spectacles, during Lent for example. Oratorios aren’t acted out with costumes, and typically tell a story. They’re stories that are sung dramatically . . . Unlike many of the [other] orators, which are based on old testament texts, which have set stories on characters from the old testament, Handel wrote a collage of text that incorporates the birth of Christ, the crucifixion, and other parts. There’s not a character of Christ that sings. It’s a very unusual piece in the way the texts are put together.”
Dr. French has been conducting the Messiah at Ursinus for the past 39 years.
“I put it together,” said French, modestly, “I train the choirs, hire the soloists, and work with a contractor to hire a professional choir. In the performance, I play the harpsichord and conduct all the choruses.”
Junior Lauren Feldman performed in the Messiah her freshman year. For Feldman, the most memorable experience was the Hallelujah Chorus.
Said Feldman of the chorus, “The whole audience was standing, and a lot of people were singing along with us. It was a really powerful moment to have that many people all singing at one time and I still get goosebumps thinking about it.”
The Hallelujah Chorus is the most famous part of the Messiah, where, as legend has it, King George II stood during the chorus and consequently, so did the rest of the audience. The tradition of the audience standing has continued ever since.
“Handel’s Messiah is an extremely well-known work and an Ursinus tradition, so I was happy just to be a part of it,” Feldman gushed. “You have the support of all of the community members who keep coming back to sing with us every year.”
Performances will be held Saturday, Dec. 2 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 3 at 2:30 p.m. General admission is $10 and student admission is $5.