I belong to a small church with a small choir. Unfortunately only my wife and I know how to read music. Our pastor desires to present cantatas at Christmas and Easter, so his wife keeps giving the choir contemporary cantatas to sing. For a group of our skill level, those works are almost impossible to sing.
Because we spend weeks practicing with recordings before we begin practicing with only the accompaniment, we generally put on performances without catastrophes. God’s support also helps, for after all, we sing to God’s glory. Nevertheless, producing these cantatas is difficult and frustrating so this year I wrote a cantata using familiar hymns and Christmas carols. I won’t call it great, but it went more smoothly than other years.
As a result of this, I am reminded how I have been inspired over the years by Handle’s Messiah. This great oratorio differs somewhat from modern cantatas in that there is no narrator. Every word is sung. Music history tells us this is because Handle had been writing operas in a time when production expenses threatened to make operas extinct. Handle started writing oratorios as a less expensive form of music with a similar grandeur.
Being a classical musician, I appreciate all of the classical composers, but for choral works, I think that Handle is the best composer.
As a young boy, I was taken to hear the Waukesha symphony orchestra and choir sing the Messiah. I was impressed both by the music and by the words. I did not recognize them as scripture, but I did understand the Christian message the oratorio conveys.
I remained one who enjoyed both recordings and live performances of The Messiah until I was an adult. At the time, I was married with two preschool children. I worked as a research scientist in the R & D Department of a paper company in Wisconsin. I was told that by virtue of my master’s degree, I was to serve as an assistant to my group leader. I guess, I did too good a job because the group leader felt threatened. He fired me.
I eventually found a job in Gary, Indiana. It took five months to buy a house and get my family moved to Indiana. I spent those five minutes living in a rooming house and eating restaurant meals. Because of the distance, I only got home once a month. My wife visited me some weekends to help house hunt. Meanwhile I discovered that the mill where I worked was not as good a work environment as places I had previously worked. I was mildly depressed. It did not help that only three of the 109 employees were Christians. Many did not even go to church. Most fought for the privilege of working Sundays at double time.
There was a church within walking distance of my rooming house so I began attending church there on Sundays. The first Sunday, choir practice was announced inte bulletin so I showed up. There was little else for me to do on a weekday night. The tenor seated next to me suggested I sing with a nearby oratorio society so the next night, I walked into a practice of the Illiana Oratorio Society that was rehearsing The Messiah.
Just singing such magnificent music lifted my spirits. Then I noticed scripture references on each of the songs. Indeed, every word of this oratorio is scripture, word for word. I was inspired further to look up some of the scripture references to learn the context of the scripture and to better understand what the Bible said.
The fact that all of the society members were born-again Christians also helped. I found myself in the midst a friendly people who accepted me as a brother in Christ.
By the Sunday after Thanksgiving, I was charged up from practicing The Messiah. My wife brought the children down that weekend so we could celebrate Thanksgiving together and they attended our performance.
Yes, we eventually moved into a wonderful house in Crown Point, Indiana where we found a church full of loving and supportive Christians. In spite of difficulties at work, we had a good life there until God provided a good job in Massachusetts, but that is a different story.
What is important is that Handle’s great work lifted my spirits and helped me study deeper into the Bible at a time when I needed God’s word for guidance and encouragement. I also became friends with some great Christian musicians who also helped to support me.
I have sung The Messiah several times since. Each time, I am inspired by the music and the words, but I continue to remember how God led me to sing this oratorio at a time when I needed it’s words.
(Also see Reynold’s new website that is under construction, http://www.ReynoldConger.com.)