On April 13, 1742, around 700 people crammed into a music hall on Fishamble Street in Dublin to witness the premiere of Handel’s “Messiah.” Anticipating the huge turnout, a local newspaper had advised ladies to come “without hoops” in their skirts, and gentlemen were requested to leave their swords at home. Nearly 300 years later, the oratorio is still flourishing worldwide wherever concert music is performed, and though it was not intended to be a festive Christmas piece, it has become a Yuletide tradition. Over the holiday season, the Boston area hosts a multitude of “Messiah” performances in chapels, cathedrals, and concert halls.
The Handel and Haydn Society sponsored the first American publication of “Messiah” in 1816 and gave the work its American premiere two years later. Since 1854, it has performed the work annually. “I really want to give people something to go back and remember,” said Handel and Haydn artistic director Harry Christophers, by phone from England. “I don’t want to be a tradition that people do by rote. Every time I perform “Messiah,” it has to be something special.”
Christophers, who was a boy chorister at Canterbury Cathedral, sang his first Messiah at Oxford as a student and conducted his first in 1985. Shortly afterward, he recorded it with his ensemble The Sixteen: “The chap who started Hyperion Records, Ted Perry — he took the biggest risk of his life on a brand new orchestra and a young person who had never conducted it before.”
Handel and Haydn performs “Messiah” at Symphony Hall Nov. 25-27, with a 28-piece orchestra and 30-voice chorus. “I think my perception of how to perform has been altered over the years,” said Christophers. “Handel was a man of the stage. He delighted in opera, and in being dramatic. Even in “Messiah,” which is absolutely an oratorio, you still feel there’s a drama that takes us through the whole Christian year.”
Both Handel and Haydn and Boston Baroque seek to make their annual “Messiah” performances as close to the original intent as possible, using historically informed instruments and performance practices. They aim to replicate the experience Abigail Adams related in a 1785 letter, after seeing a performance at Westminster Abbey: “I could scarcely believe myself an inhabitant of Earth. I was one continued shudder from the beginning to the end of the performance.”
Martin Pearlman has conducted “Messiah” every year since 1981, when he gave the first period-instrument performance of the full work in the city with Boston Baroque, then called Banchetto Musicale. New York Times music writer Will Crutchfield called a Banchetto performance a “ ‘Messiah’ that would have shocked our grandparents.” “I guess it was an advantage that I had not grown up hearing Messiah,” Pearlman said by phone. “I was able to treat it like a great piece of Baroque music instead of an icon or tradition.”
Boston Baroque’s performances are at Jordan Hall Dec. 9-10. “It doesn’t have a bad note in it,” said Pearlman of the piece’s enduring popularity. “It also became a vehicle for very large community choruses, already starting with Handel’s centennial celebration when they had 300 people in the chorus.”
Meanwhile, Harvard University’s Dunster House has been hosting community “Messiah” sings for 45 years. Jennifer Hsiao, a Dunster resident tutor in biology and music, estimates that 150-200 singers came to last year’s sing. “The chorus doesn’t rehearse at all,” Hsiao said of the event, which is free to the public and takes place Dec. 8. She plays violin in the orchestra in addition to organizing. “Anyone can just come and sing. Some people have been doing it for years.”
“I think one thing to remember is that the first performance of “Messiah” was for charity. Throughout the world there’s a goodwill feeling about it,” said Christophers. “It can be played in a wonderfully chamber way, or it can be performed with big mass choruses. You can’t destroy “Messiah.” It’s such an incredible work.”
Notable Boston-area “Messiah” performances
Nov. 25-27: Handel and Haydn Society, Symphony Hall.
Dec. 4: Trinity Choirs and Orchestra, Trinity Church.
Dec. 8: Dunster House Messiah Sing, Dunster House, Harvard University, Cambridge. Open sing.
Dec. 9-10: Boston Baroque, Jordan Hall.
Dec. 12: “Wonder Reborn,” New England Conservatory Ensembles, Jordan Hall.
Dec. 14: North End Music and Performing Arts Center, St. Stephen’s Church, North End.
Dec. 16-17: Masterworks Chorale, Grace Chapel, Lexington. Open sing.
Dec. 18: Powers Music School, Payson Park Church, Belmont. Open sing.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.
The listing information in an earlier version misidentified the location of the Handel and Haydn Society’s “Messiah” performance.