I purposefully left Handel's Messiah off our list of Top 10 Desert Island Christmas Albums. Why? Because this incomparably luminous work is not just for Christmas. Here at the Beehive, we have always listened to it during dinner throughout the year, particularly on Saturday nights.
The Messiah is perhaps the most magnificent musical work ever written. Handel wrapped high art around selected texts from the King James Bible, granting the human race a musical expression of the life of Christ that is without parallel.
Handel wept uncontrollably as he composed The Messiah, and when asked about the shockingly short period of time that it took to compose -- a mere 21 days for a massive body of work, averaging over 12 pages of full orchestra score per day -- he simply quoted Paul: "Whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote it, I know not."
A servant startled him just as he finished writing the "Hallelujah Chorus" and he turned with tears streaming down his cheeks and cried out, "I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself!"
According to historians, the King of England (in whose presence all subjects rose), was overcome with awe during the very first performance of the Hallelujah chorus and suddenly stood up, profoundly illustrating his subjection to the "King of Kings." The rest of the audience naturally rose when the King rose, and the tradition remains to this day.
We have listened to many recordings of The Messiah over the years, and the two albums pictured here are far and away our favorites -- but they are very different in style and interpretation. We choose which one to listen to at different times accordingly.
The Toronto Symphony recording with Andrew Davis conducting is a full symphonic interpretation, the way you're probably accustomed to hearing it -- with full-blown orchestra, full chorus and powerhouse soloists (Kathleen Battle, oh yesss!). Big, spine-tingling stuff here. Absolutely superb for the blood circulation and invigorating to the soul. In fact, I think I need to go play it again right this minute. Listen to samples here.
The recording with The Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Christopher Hogwood is, by contrast, as close as we'll ever come to knowing how Handel heard it -- on period instruments, and sung in the Baroque style. It's rich and meditative, and more intimate, making it the recording we choose for dinnertime -- it's actually possible to converse over this one! And we just adore Emma Kirkby, arguably the finest Baroque/Renaissance style soprano alive today. If I could only own one recording of The Messiah, this would be it (but I'm glad I have both!). Hear sample tracks here.
Do try to take in a live performance during this holiday season; many churches and colleges perform it for free in December. Take a copy of the score if you can; we particularly like the Schirmer edition, as it is readable and comfortable in the hand.
You can listen to the melodies of the various movements at The Classical Music Archives (although it will not give you the feel of an orchestra and chorus by any stretch).
The libretto is also online.