The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


December 9, 2012

Handel-ing the Holidays

BECKLEY — You say “The Messiah.” I say “Messiah.” Whatever way music lovers reference the most-known work of 18th century composer George Frideric Handel, it means today that Christmas is just around the corner. If playing Santa in unseasonably warm temps has stifled the holiday spirit, the Hallelujah chorus is sure to conjure it back.

Saturday, Dec. 15, 7:30 p.m. at Woodrow Wilson High School Auditorium, Beckley, the Roanoke College Choir and the Chamber Orchestra of the Roanoke Symphony will join to present Part I of the oratorio that exploded in popularity in the 19th century and is arguably considered the most well-known, enduring classical music composition of all time.

Teresa McCoy, music director for Beckley Presbyterian Church and music instructor for Concord University, explained the composer who is best known for capturing the spirit of Christmas and the story of the Messiah in music wasn’t particularly pious himself. “He was born in 1685 in Germany, but when he was 21, he moved to London and lived in England for the rest of his life. He never married and was rather private about his personal life. The first 30 years of his career, he wrote mostly operas, which these days would compare to writing Broadway musicals. It was more of a theater lifestyle than a religious lifestyle.”

As opera fell more out of style, the opportunistic side of Handel (pronounced handle, not hondel) compelled him to start writing oratorios, which eventually led to “Messiah.” “It’s like opera but not staged. An oratorio is vocal and instrumental music that tells a story. They were also cheaper to produce.”

Commissioned by the Irish Government, Handel debuted “Messiah” in Dublin, Ireland. Handel had written what in all three parts equals 4 hours of performance in only 24 days. “The first part is the Christmas section and the second is the crucifixion, passion and suffering. The Easter portion is where the Hallelujah chorus comes from.” Part III represnts the promise of eternal life. But, explained McCoy, if you perform the Christmas section only, you almost always tack the Hallelujah chorus on at the end, and it has been so for hundreds of years.

The tradition to stand during the Hallelujah chorus is believed to have begun with King George II, so moved by the music at its London Premiere in 1743 that he stood up. “Of course, if the king stands up, everybody else has to,” said McCoy, adding that there’s some discrepancy about whether he stood because emotion overtook or due to other biological necessities, the least menacing of those searchable by Internet being to “stretch his legs.”

Margaret Sayre, a board member and past president of the Beckley Concert Association, is proud to bring the history lesson and the music of Messiah to Beckley in time for family Christmas celebrations and in honor of one of the founding members of what was initially the Community Concert Association.  

“This is the first in a series of Louise B. Wickham Memorial Concerts at the bequest of her daughter Nancy Wickham, who died in 2011,” she explained. Nancy had specified that the concerts in the series she funded be vocal performances, respecting her mother’s history of studying voice professionally in California, before she married Thomas Wickham and began a family in Beckley. As early as 1924, Louise proved her commitment to promoting “good” music in her community by organizing a group of women to meet in her home for “The Monday Music Club”, of which she was also a charter member and first president. Louise passed away in 1967.

Peggy Debnam, Publicity Chairman for Beckley Concert Association said this is one of many multi-generational concerts in the exciting 2012-2013 season lineup that she believes will add a new dimension to holiday celebrations. A believer also in the power of music to heal, Debnam recalled a former position she held in North Carolina working with a community of retired persons. “We had the best choral directors in the county come and present Messiah. People who had been inside their own shell for years came out and had a ball with this piece. It is very stirring.”

Sayre and Debnam both said they couldn’t recall the last time a true classical rendition of Messiah came to the area. “This piece is such a family favorite and a traditional piece of music for December. There are also so many churches and religious groups that will enjoy this performance,” Debnam stated.

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