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'Hallelujah!': Remembering my first 'Messiah'

The Christmas when I was 11, I was ready for my first Messiah. It was a rite of passage. My mother had always told me that when I was old enough, she would take me to the Messiah sing-in at then-Avery Fisher Hall in Manhattan.

The Christmas when I was 11, I was ready for my first


. It was a rite of passage. My mother had always told me that when I was old enough, she would take me to the


sing-in at then-Avery Fisher Hall in Manhattan.

To take part in the Messiah sing-in, you had to be able to read music and to sing music in four-part harmony, rather than the simple unison songs that were the fare in my first years of school chorus. I could do those things well enough, at least, to allow us to procure two Messiah vocal scores - the biggest piece of music I had ever intimately encountered - and board the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

My mother had warned me about one thing: the long rest at the end of the "Hallelujah" chorus. After a lengthy, galloping run of "Hallelujah, hallelujah," there's an extended pause when the chorus seems to hold its breath before coming in on a final, anthemlike "Hallelujah!" When she had sung Messiah with her school chorus, she told me, someone had always come in too early, gasping a "ha" into the pause. She said it with a conspiratorial air so that I was both resolved not to make the mistake and eager to hear the person who would.

In the crowded hall, there was a delightful holiday sense of carnival, partly because it was Christmastime and partly because things had been turned on their heads in a hall where the audience was doing the singing, facing the conductor, and the soloists and another chorus were on the stage. It seemed incredible to me that there were so many other people who were capable, like me, of singing Messiah. I thought some of them must surely have come to listen, because I knew not everyone could sing part songs, as I could.

At the time, I knew virtually nothing about the composer, George Frideric Handel. I knew he had written Water Music, tunes from which I played on my violin. I knew he was a German who had lived in England - Messiah, after all, is in English. But I didn't know he had written dozens of successful operas and turned to oratorio only in an attempt to make money after his opera companies failed. Messiah was written to round out a series of benefit concerts Handel planned for a 1742 trip to Dublin. With its combination of Old and New Testament texts, it was a kind of experiment, and he wrote it in 24 days.

I didn't know the tradition of performing it at Christmas is peculiarly Anglophonic. Messiah, after all, is about the Passion as well as the birth of Christ, and in Germany, the piece comes out at Easter (at Christmas, you get Bach's Weihnachtsoratorien instead). Most Messiah sing-ins focus on the Christmas parts, with "Hallelujah" stuck in at the end, because you can't have a Messiah without "Hallelujah."

Everyone would stand at the "Hallelujah," my mother told me, because that was the tradition: The king of England had stood when he first heard it performed, and everyone had done so since. The story may be apocryphal, but everyone still stands for "Hallelujah." I remember seeing a modern staged production of Messiah, best forgotten, that set the action in a madhouse. A mild confusion rippled through the audience at the beginning of the familiar chorus. Was it appropriate here to follow the tradition? Susan Sontag was the first to stand, and some people gradually followed her.

There is something wonderful about hearing a piece for the first time when you are taking part in it. I knew a couple of the Messiah choruses, and I clung to them like lifeboats and sang lustily when they came along - but I also enjoyed thrashing through the water in their absence, mortified as I was whenever I got lost, face aflame, hoping the people around me didn't notice.

Messiah has since become so familiar to me, and there have been so many sing-ins in the years since - in my high school chorus in the New Mexico desert, in a church in the suburban southern part of Munich - that it's hard to remember what the solos and choruses sounded like when they were new in my ears. I can reconstruct the tenor soloist swelling and then diminishing the high phrase "Comfort ye, my people," so that it arced like an embrace over the listeners. I remember all too clearly floundering in the rapid-fire coloratura of "And he shall purify," which has a way in amateur performances of slowing down drastically while voices hack their way through it like saws. And I remember the robust satisfaction of "And the glory of the Lord," with its pat, solid rhythms.

And, finally, "Hallelujah." We launched into the familiar music, and I'm quite sure I got hopelessly lost in the tricky middle bit, but I got found again in time to pound out "King of kings, and lord of lords," and to waver through the "And he shall reign forever and ever," and launch into the gallop: "For ever! And ever! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!"

Then came the pause, and I was on the edge of my seat, and in the hall was dead silence. And then everyone came in, together, on the final "Hallelujah."

Not one person had gotten it wrong. That, my mother said on the way home, was the sign of a really first-rate performance.