The evolution of enlightenment

Jerry Moore

As we tightly cling to what little is left of summer (the autumnal equinox begins Monday at 3:50 a.m.), I’m reluctant to use the word “holiday.”

These warm months went by way too quickly. For as much as I enjoy fall weather each year, this period also comes and goes in the blink of an eye — and then the “season that shall not be named” follows right behind it.

Another north country winter is on the horizon. Ugh!

So I’m not ready to embrace the concepts of Thanksgiving and Christmas just yet. As special as these occasions are, I’ll pretend that they’re still way off in the distance. Hey, please allow me to live in denial for the time being; it’s a coping mechanism that provides some measure of comfort.

But this feel-good sensation will be short-lived. The chorister in me needs to get ready for a musical classic right away.

I’m a member of the Sackets Harbor Vocal Arts Ensemble, and we’ll present George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” — the entire score — on Dec. 22. Rehearsals kick off Monday in the Macsherry Parish Center of Trinity Episcopal Church, 227 Sherman St. in Watertown. SHVAE last performed “Messiah” in 2015.

The “Messiah” score to be used will be the Novello Handel Edition, edited by Watkins Shaw (revised 1992). Copies will be available to borrow (use pencil only when making notations on the pages) or for purchase at $10 each. Placement hearings and registration for new singers begins at 6 p.m., and registration for returning singers starts at 6:30 p.m.

I haven’t participated in a performance of “Messiah” for perhaps 17 years. It’s a magnificent work and a true seasonal favorite.

While it’s become primarily associated with Christmas, Handel intended it to be presented at other times of the year. The inaugural performance of “Messiah,” in fact, was shortly after Easter in 1742 in Dublin.

Amazingly, Handel composed the entire score for “Messiah” in an estimated 24 days. There’s a long-held belief that Handel suffered from bipolar disorder and that he wrote “Messiah” while on a manic high.

Numerous written accounts refer to his suspected mental health problems. An April 2, 2009, article in the Independent had this title: “The madness of George Frideric Handel.” The subtitle concludes, “The composer was notorious for his love of food. But new research suggests his greed was the consequence of a pathological condition.”

But not everyone is convinced that this psychological woe plagued Handel. The Sept. 14, 1989, edition of the Los Angeles Times included this story: “Handel gets clean bill of health — at last: Psychiatrist studies his papers, concludes composer was ‘normally neurotic.’”

The tradition of rising for the “Hallelujah” chorus is believed to have begun when King George II stood during this part of the performance in 1743 during its premiere in London. But once again, this legend has its doubters.

“[A]ccording to various experts, there is no truth to this story,” Ricky O’Bannon wrote in an article titled “5 things you might not know about Handel’s ‘Messiah’” on the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s website. “In fact there is no evidence King George II was even in attendance, and it is unlikely the newspaper writers that were in the audience would have overlooked mentioning a royal presence. The first reference to this story was a letter written 37 years after the fact.”

These debates will likely to go on for some time. But few disagree that “Messiah” is a masterpiece that draws both singers and audiences each performance.

“The lasting popularity … owes to the work’s moving text, drawn from the Bible. From prophecy to incarnation to death and resurrection, the life of Christ has been called the greatest story ever told,” according to an article titled “Why Handel’s ‘Messiah’ endures,” written by Jennifer A. Marshall and posted Dec. 16, 2011, on the website for the Heritage Foundation. “Indeed, Leland Ryken and other Christian literary scholars have noted how the narrative qualities of biblical revelation are finely tuned to the way we’re made as humans. Together, the music and subject of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ reach the sublime status of great art that speaks to ‘what is permanent in the human soul,’ as the 19th century poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold wrote. No wonder we love to hear it at Christmas, the time of year that calls us back to the permanent things.”

What’s most unique about our upcoming event is that it will be the 100th performance of the renowned Trinity Concert Series. Kyle P. Ramey, our music director, is the organist and choirmaster at Trinity Episcopal Church.

He set a goal of reviving the Music at Trinity concert series shortly after beginning his tenure at the church in 2006. Members of SHVAE have been proud to be a part of this beloved event.

So while I wish the holiday season wasn’t drawing so close, I’m looking forward to jumping into rehearsals for our “Messiah” performance. Singers are invited to join us Monday evenings this fall and winter as we prepare for this beloved tradition.

Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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(2) comments


It's not a Christmas piece as people think. Only the first third of work was about the birth of Jesus. The second act covers the death of Jesus and the third focused on his resurrection. Ori, it was conceived as a work for Easter and was premiered in the spring during Lent.


I'm just wondering this... I'm not being critical or judgmental. Presumably, the Sackets Harbor Vocal Arts Ensemble consists of folks of various "faiths"-- Christian, non-Christian, agnostic, atheist, etc. In other words, a diversity of "faith" voices will be singing the sacred story Messiah at Trinity in December. I wonder how members of the Ensemble come to understand, from the framework of their individual "faith" voices, their connection to and association with the sacred story. Surely, it would seem, each thinking member would be inclined to ponder how he or she "coexists" with Messiah. It would be interesting to learn about their personal and likely unique mental and/or "faith" journeys.

It is said that Handel manically wrote Messiah in 24 days not because he was actually manic but because he was intensely motivated by the sacred story and the idea of some Dubliners to use the proceeds from the first performance to release men from debtor's prison. Indeed, the first performance led to the release of 142 men. How can the Sackets Harbor Vocal Arts Ensemble and Trinity bring this fascinating facet into their production of Messiah?

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