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Friday, December 14, 2012

Guest Post: Mormons and the Messiah

Peter Shirts has directed ward and stake choirs and has mastered the art of suggestion when he's not directing the church choir he's currently in. While at BYU, he co-founded an ensemble that played Klezmer (Eastern European Jewish music) and enjoyed teaching Mormons how to dance at Jewish weddings. After receiving 2.5 degrees in music, he's currently pursing a librarian science degree so he has more employable skills. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, where he blogs about musical things.

By the Messiah, of course I mean George Frideric Handel's Messiah, the oratorio written in 1741 to scripture compiled by Charles Jenkins.* An oratorio, by the way, is an opera with no costumes, sets, or staging, making them much easier (and cheaper) to perform. Opera was the rock music of the era, and the 18th-century English rather liked the oratorio form because it kept ticket prices down and included a choir.

For the past couple of years, I've had the chance of performing Handel's Messiah in a choir with professional symphonies during the Christmas season, and I don't even feel bad missing church to do it (okay, maybe a little bit bad).** Every year when I start Messiah rehearsals, it's like meeting an old friend. "Hello, will you please become stuck in my head again? I've missed you." After performing the Messiah so many times, I can't read these passages of scripture without hearing Handel's music in my head:

• For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder ... (Isaiah 9:6)
• He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief … (Isaiah 53:3; Mosiah 14:3)
• All we like sheep have gone astray … (Isaiah 53:6; Mosiah 14:6)

I'm not the lone Mormon who loves the Messiah. I feel like every town in Utah has a yearly Messiah sing-in (from a quick Google search, I'm counting five across the Wasatch front for 2012, and one at an LDS chapel in Tucson, though I'm sure there's more). I helped organize one at BYU many years ago, and even with limited publicity, more people showed up than we could fit in the Madsen Recital Hall. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has recorded it five times, not including individual choruses on various compilations. The easier movements are often sung at Christmas sacrament meetings or firesides across the county, perhaps the world. Then there's Joyful Noise (1999) by Mormon playwright Tim Slover, which is about the writing and reception of the Messiah. It's still popular enough that it plays somewhere every holiday season, with three locations in North America this year.

Yet Mormons normally don't get into Baroque music. Even Bach, now the most well-known Baroque composer and an exact contemporary of Handel, gets fairly short shrift in the church. When's the last time you heard a Bach cantata in sacrament meeting? Never? Even the one Bach hymn in the hymnbook is a cut-and-paste job of several settings Bach made of that tune, perhaps because the hymnbook compilers thought any one of Bach's harmonizations was too weird for most people to stomach. Granted, Handel is recognized as being more singable than Bach, but the Messiah is by no means easy.

So why do Mormons love the Messiah so much? Here are some guesses:

1. Texts are drawn directly from the King James Bible, so we don't have to worry about pesky non-doctrinal lyrics.
2. Several of the Bible texts also appear in the Book of Mormon
3. The large number of English and Welsh saints who transplanted to Utah brought their love of Handel with them and passed it on to us.
4. It's got catchy tunes. Handel was good at those.
5. Who doesn't like the Messiah!?! Even the atheists in my choirs like it.

Can you think of any other reasons? Merry Christmas season to all, and Hallelujah! Forever and ever!

* Every time I hear modern Mormon musical works with scriptural texts, I appreciate Jenkins' contribution more. Good, singable English scriptures are hard to come by, it turns out.
** True fact: choirs rehearse the Hallelujah chorus only once before performing it, because everyone sings along anyway.

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