I’ve been listening to Handel’s Messiah since I was a little kid. The recording was always on heavy rotation on the Mayer family stereo every Christmas, all of us singing along at top volume. What we may have lacked in musicality we definitely made up for in impassioned loudness, and when there were no words to sing my dad and I would whistle the instrumental sections with great, pitchy zeal. With our chests flung forward and our throats outstretched we belted every line—I’m quite certain we sounded fantastic.
For those of you don’t know, The Messiah is an oratorio written by German composer, George Frederic Handel. The Messiah tells the story of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ by marrying key bible verses using baroque music.
In my life, I’ve lived in a lot of different cities and everywhere I go I try to find a choir to sing with. I grew up singing in our church back home and I’ve always loved the experience of singing with so many other voices at once. So when I moved to Zimbabwe in 2011, I started looking for a choir and found myself in the company of the Marden Singers.
Founded in 1963 by the indefatigable Margot Dennis, the Marden Singers have been performing opera and classical music recitals for more than 50 years. They have performed the Messiah every year for the past 40 of those. The choir is more than 50 voices strong and brings together music enthusiasts – both professional and amateur – from diverse backgrounds. But as different as we all are, this piece of music brings us together each year. I decided to ask my fellow singers why they thought that was.
“I think the music is beautiful, but to be honest, I just love how much everyone loves it,” says Diane Skinner, who sang her second Messiah with the Marden Singers this year. “I can’t think of a piece of music that brings people together in the same way. I like the sense of tradition that surrounds the entire piece.”
Roz Ribeiro is conductor Margot Dennis’s daughter and sings in the soprano section alongside her 13-year old son Sebastiao. Roz sang in her first Messiah chorus at the age of ten and had her first solo at 14. Now Sebbie joins her on the pastoral recitatives and the choruses. “What I love about the Messiah is how we never tire of it. I think this is due to Handel’s composition of the music that has been so perfectly matched with the words.”
Whether I talked to Colbert Mpofu – who just sang his 17th Messiah with the Marden Singers – or Lisa Langhaug who just sang her first, it is the splendor of the oratorio that draws us in. “It is a powerful piece of music,” says Lisa. “I am moved every time I hear it. And when you are part of the choir, you get a chance to go on a wonderful journey.”
For me, that’s it exactly. What makes this music special is not just the beauty and complexity of Handel’s composition but also the process of practicing, performing and sharing it together. And since I am a lifelong Messiah geek, getting to be one of the voices singing out from the risers is so thrilling that there are times I choke up and can’t sing. I have a feeling I’m not the only one.
The Marden Singers performed this year’s Messiah on November 14 and 15 at the Anglican Cathedral in town, accompanied by the soaring baritone of Takunda Rukanda and the hugely talented organist Erik Dippenaar, who played the cathedral’s newly renovated pipe organ. It was only my second time singing with the chorus and I was very nervous. While scanning the audience and trying to appear calm, I spotted an older lady, head bobbing enthusiastically in time to the music, mouthing the lyrics with all of her heart. I couldn’t help grinning. Amen sister, amen!
Image: Last month’s performance of Handel’s Messiah at the Anglican Cathedral in town
Image Credit: Asa Jogi