So I’m part of this choir that sings Handel’s Messiah in Hill Auditorium every year. Sometimes that means we sigh at the fact that it’s December again and we’re singing Messiah for the 4th or 10th or 37th time. Sometimes that means we pass over rehearsing Handel in favor of rehearsing more unfamiliar repertoire; this season, it’s MacMillan’s Tu Es Petrus, the finale of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and Milhaud’s Oresteia. Sometimes we hold our scores but never look at them, which can backfire on the odd occasion our conductor makes changes to the dynamics or duration of the notes.
It can get a bit wearing, is what I’m saying. Singing a piece year after year ought to make it more polished, but I’m convinced I get worse at the melismas every time. Squishing onto the risers never really gets better. I typically end up counting how many movements are left. December doesn’t really get any warmer (well, okay, it did this year. One-off). I never get any less liturgically confused. The Hallelujah Chorus always feels so relaxed and somehow that doesn’t seem right.
And yet, no matter how wearing it gets, the moments remain which remind me why I do this – why I’m part of a choir, why I sing, why music is: The end and final aim of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul. In high school, we had choir tour shirts with this line from Bach on the back, but it hardly seemed so true then as it does now.
During performances this weekend, that nigh-wearisome familiarity with the score allowed for the music to glorify God and refresh the soul as I’d never before experienced it. The notes, the rhythms, the dynamics, the diction: they were not abandoned, but observing them was drawn up into conveying the meaning, the truth of words heard so often over the years that we sometimes cease to attend them. To paraphrase our conductor, each chorus must be sung as though for the first time these words have ever been heard:
For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulders…
Glory to God! Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth.
Surely, surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruiséd for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and with His stripes we are healéd.
Let all the angels of God worship Him!
The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing! Blessing and honor, glory, and power be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne and unto the Lamb. Amen!
When the final cutoff arrived, it seemed to me that we hadn’t yet sung enough…in fact, it seemed we never could. The power and verity of those words provided a glimpse of what praising God in perfect heavenly harmony might be like. To focus one’s energy on the One who is worthy of all praise: this is delight. This is what we were made for. This is a foretaste of the feast of thanksgiving to come.