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Messiah a hit through the ages

IN CONCERT What: Victoria Symphony: Handel's Messiah When: Friday, Dec. 18, 8 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 20, 2:30 p.m. Where: Farquhar Auditorium (University Centre, University of Victoria). Tickets: $16 to $41.


What: Victoria Symphony: Handel's Messiah

When: Friday, Dec. 18, 8 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 20, 2:30 p.m.

Where: Farquhar Auditorium (University Centre, University of Victoria).

Tickets: $16 to $41.

Call 250-721-8480

What: Civic Orchestra of Victoria: Singalong Messiah

When: Saturday, Dec. 19, 2 p.m.

Where: Alix Goolden Hall (907 Pandora Ave., at Quadra Street).

Tickets: Adults $18, seniors and students $14, children under 12 free if accompanied by an adult. In advance at Larsen Music, Long & McQuade, Ivy's Book Shop, Tanner's Books, the Shieling Cards and Gifts, and Broadmead Gallery (Royal Oak Shopping Centre).

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Handel usually performed his Messiah around Easter, but never mind -- for us, Christmastime is Messiah time. This year, it will be performed here three times on the weekend of Dec. 18-20.

The Civic Orchestra of Victoria will offer its 11th annual Singalong Messiah, in which the audience becomes the chorus. (Bring your own score if you have one.) At the Victoria Symphony's two performances, the audience's efforts are neither required nor, probably, much appreciated, thanks to the 120-voice Victoria Choral Society, which is celebrating its 75th-anniversary season.

(It was a gathering of church choirs and instrumentalists for the purpose of performing Messiah, in 1934, that prompted the founding of the choral society.)

Messiah is just about the only work of its vintage that can claim a continuous performance history from its day to ours; it retains a position in the mainstream choral repertoire, and the popular imagination, rivalled by few other works. If you doubt that, try to imagine a Singalong B-minor Mass, or a Singalong Missa solemnis.

The upcoming local performances will presumably attract large audiences, for whose benefit we offer here a modest Messiah primer.

Handel single-handedly forged the English oratorio out of existing genres of dramatic and sacred music from England, France, Italy and Germany. Through the 1730s, as his operatic fortunes in London declined, he turned increasingly to oratorio, which supplanted opera as his principal musical occupation for the last 20 years of his life.

He composed Messiah in the summer of 1741, in a little over three weeks (such speed was hardly remarkable by his standards); the libretto was compiled by Charles Jennens, an eccentric but well-connected Englishman with a passion for literature and music. First performed at a charity concert in Dublin in April 1742, Messiah was a hit with both audiences and critics. "It gave universal Satisfaction to all present," a reviewer of the première wrote, "and was allowed by the greatest Judges to be the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard."

For some of Handel's contemporaries, the very concept of an oratorio -- a musical setting of a religious subject intended for public entertainment outside the church -- was an improper conflation of sacred and secular. Nevertheless, Messiah quickly became one of his most beloved works. Handel himself performed it annually in London from 1749 until his death 10 years later.

(He tinkered with the score for years, incidentally, sometimes to suit a particular performance or performer. As a result, there is no single authentic Messiah; the various "standard performing versions" are all compromises.)

By century's end -- a time when "ancient music" was usually ignored -- Messiah was being performed and admired throughout Europe. It was also adapted to changing tastes, sometimes performed in updated arrangements by massive choruses and orchestras; attempts to recapture the performance practices of Handel's day began only around 1950.

The Handel oratorio, by one contemporary definition, is "a musical Drama, whose Subject must be Scriptural, and in which the Solemnity of Church-Musick is agreeably united with the most pleasing Airs of the Stage." Messiah is typical of the genre in some ways: a big concert work for soloists, choir and orchestra featuring operatic recitatives and arias and comprising three large "acts" divided into "scenes" that usually culminate in a chorus.

But Messiah also differs significantly from Handel's other oratorios. It deals directly with the life of Christ -- something audiences were not accustomed to seeing in an English theatre. (Part I deals with Biblical prophecies of the Saviour and the incarnation of Christ; Part II deals with Christ's Passion and the Second Coming; Part III comments on Christ's role as Saviour.) Also unusual is that the text, taken directly from the Bible, includes no real verse, and is a narrative, not a drama -- the story is told, not enacted.

Nevertheless, Jennens's text proved well-suited structurally to a dramatic musical setting, and encouraged the evocative, emotionally charged musical imagery and subtle tone-painting of which Handel was a master.

Finally, in response to a press release I received, I offer some clarification regarding one of the choruses in Messiah. The correct title is "His yoke is easy," not "His yolk," a slip that irresistibly invites parody: "His yolk is over easy."