Messiah Miscellany: Humor in Handel

You can’t spend four autumns singing an oratorio without coming away with some stories about it.  Here are some snippets of things I’ve encountered along the way…

First off, there’s our conductor.  Jerry Blackstone is a beautifully dynamic man, and endlessly fascinating to watch.  This is convenient, as I have not yet met the choral situation which demanded that I look at anyone other than the conductor.  The plasticity of his face and the expression of his baton tell me more than my music (which, inevitably, I still hold up and turn when appropriate without so much as glancing at it).

Like any good music director, Jerry will use whatever cajoling or mental picture or example which proves effective.  Some of his exhortation follows:

(whenever we repeat a phrase) “You can’t sing it the same way twice!  You’re insisting – Did you hear what I said?  And the glory, the glory of the LORD!  It should explode!  It should be really really compelling!”

“The ness of righteousness should sound like Loch Ness.  The –ng of king shouldn’t spread the vowel; sing it as though the word were kitchen.  Don’t let the n sneak into since; the word is city.  THE WORD IS CITY.”

“Listen to you guys.  It’s like you’re afraid to stick out.  If you’re a real tenor, you go ‘I’m gonna stick out.  And they’re gonna hear me.  And it’s gonna be gorgeous.’”

“Not CHOStisement, ‘cause that’s not a word.”

“It’s hard to hide ugliness.  ….yes!  That’s a word that’s language!”

“I hope in Hill we have more vibrancy and more drama…right now it’s a little gentle, as though being taken captive were okay.”

(on how to enunciate “Hallelujah”)  “We’re always going to the lu, so to speak.”

(on the “Amen” part of “Worthy is the Lamb”) “You would sing that differently if you were thinking ‘First Noel’ instead of ‘This is the end of the fugue; I can relax now.’”

Movement 5: Thus Saith the Lord
Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts; Yet once, a little while, and I will shake the heav’ns, and the earth, the sea, and the dry land; And I will shake all nations

My choir director in college told us – right before a performance – how he’d conducted the Jackson Symphony Orchestra and Jackson Chorale for a performance of Messiah once.  Rehearsals had been fairly typical, and none of the soloists had given him any reason for concern.  When it came time for this movement during the performance, however, the baritone soloist suddenly branched out into musical theater or jazz choir: he held up and vigorously shook a hand through every melisma in the movement, stretched out an arm toward the ceiling and the floor to indicate heaven and earth, and even, it seems, fluttered his wrist to indicate the liquid nature of the sea.

We all teased our conductor for sharing this story before we processed in to sing it, as the baritone slated to sing that solo was always a bit of a red-haired wild card, and it did not strain the bounds of anyone’s belief to imagine him imitating the baritone of legend in attitude and gesture.

Raconteurs who shared the story thereafter recognized the unique applicability of this movement to cocktail preparation, which is why I have begun making some effort to learn a recitative I will never perform with an ensemble.

Movement 6: But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming?
But who may abide the day of his coming? And who shall stand when he appeareth?  For he is like a refiner’s fire.

Not much of a story here, sorry; it’s just, whenever I hear this particular air, I want to go back to chemistry class and, you know, burn the dross out of something in a crucible.

Movement 19: Then Shall the Eyes
Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing…

Our organist has a little pastoral scene that he sets up on the organ console in Hill.  He must get a new animal for it every year; he has some 6 or 7 sheep, as well as a miniature stag.  Last week, as the mezzo-soprano sang, Scott was left to his own devices.  His own devices evidently include making the little stag figurine leap, as harts do.

Movement 23: He was despised
He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  He gave his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: He hid not his face from shame and spitting.

You probably think I am a horrible person for finding anything amusing in this movement, which typically runs between 7 and 9 minutes on account of the tempo and repetition.  It really ought to be grueling.  However, Thalia once pointed out that “smiters” sounds an awful lot like “spiders,” which, creepy though it sounds, is far less wrenching.

I carefully broached this subject with a fellow soprano on Sunday and she agreed, saying “I’d wondered why Jesus would give his back to the spiders.  Are there even spiders in the Bible?”

(In Job 8 and Isaiah 59, it turns out)

Movement 28: He Trusted in God
He trust in God that he would deliver him; let him deliver him, if he delight in him.

Quite aside from the abundance of third person masculine pronouns, this movement makes me both laugh and cringe because it’s so curiously pleasant to get wrapped up in the persona of a jeering bystander on Golgotha.  I may write more on this topic later; for now, let me just say that Jerry gets so involved and so in character that he begins to resemble John Noble as Denethor:

Jerry Blackstone delighteth mine eyenwordpress, why must you be divorced from the reality of my image-resizing?

Further silliness (and music markings) on the morrow!

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4 thoughts on “Messiah Miscellany: Humor in Handel

  1. I need to come back and reread this, because it was a delight. I love the conductor quotes especially.

    The “who may abide the day of his coming?” verse is actually one of the passages I aim to memorize. I’ve loved the imagery of burning dross off silver, but after reading your comments, now I’m thinking of Potions class. Ergh…

    • I am curiously relieved that you enjoy the conductor notes! As I typed them out, I thought “Maybe I only find this funny because I can hear Jerry in my head.”

      There’s this poem idea I have involving dross-burning. Mayhaps I should get that out and dust it off…it might bring you back from the Potions dungeon 🙂

      • Understandable concerns are understandable, but no, I think it works. I can’t hear Jerry in MY head, but I’m still entertained.

        Yes, please, anything to bring me back from the Potions dungeon….

  2. I love these – having sung the entire Messiah numerous times, and worked with numerous directors! So much fun. I particularly liked the comment about tenors… we have one in the symphony chorus who has clearly taken that note to heart!

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