FORT WORTH It has been said that Handel’s Messiah is the first piece of classical music ever written — if you define classic as a work of art whose greatness was recognized at its first appearance and whose popularity has never diminished. The oratorio has been around for more than 200 years and looks to be going for another 200, at least.
Messiah is such a Christmas fixture in the English-speaking world that many must assume it was composed with the Christmas season in mind. Actually, it was premiered in April, not December, and the birth of Christ is implied but not dwelt on.
Handel’s music is so extraordinary that the text becomes secondary even if it is from Scripture. The text, from the King James version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, was compiled by Charles Jennens.
It’s amusing now to read about Jennens’ and Handel’s relationship. The former, apparently jealous at the attention Handel was getting, criticized the oratorio, suggesting that Handel “retouch the weak parts to make it fit for a publick performance.” It would be interesting to know which he considered to be the weak parts.
Jennens also called Handel “lazy and obstinate.” The composer may well have been obstinate, but lazy? He composed the Messiah in 24 days — a stupendous feat. Just getting the notes written down was a wonder; that they are so great is near miraculous.
Handel apparently knew that this was something special; the premiere, in Dublin, was a benefit performance. The proceeds went to aid jail prisoners and a hospital, among other things.
Messiah has become a Fort Worth tradition, as it is in so many cities. On Tuesday night in Bass Hall, the Southwestern Seminary Master Chorale and four vocal soloists joined the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and conductor David Thye for the latest performance.
As a work of art, the Messiah above all belongs to the chorus. This was a fine night for the choristers. One of the greatest of the choruses, “For unto us a child is born,” was spine-tingling. Very moving, also, was “He has borne our griefs.” And, of course, everybody waits for the “Hallelujah” chorus, and it was thrilling. The audience followed tradition and stood during its performance, and they applauded at the final notes — the only one of the choruses to be so recognized. Not traditional, but why not?
As for the soloists, I found soprano Hoo Song Kim’s sweet voice especially appealing. Tenor Leo Day’s opening recitative and air were a little rough, while alto Angela Faith Cofer and bass J. David Robinson did respectable work throughout.
Thye’s tempos seemed reasonable, though Robinson’s “But who may abide the day of his coming” seemed a little tame in an air that is about, in part, a refiner’s fire.
Bass Hall seemed festive, with a couple of Christmas trees onstage and bright red flowers at the sides and in front of the conductor’s stand.