Historians believe George Frideric Handel composed “Messiah” in a burst of divine inspiration that spanned just 24 days in 1741.
The composer never left his house during this explosion of creativity, according to reports. His servant brought him food, which often went untouched. Once, when the servant came into Handel’s writing room, the composer was heard to exclaim, “I think I did see all heaven before me and the great God himself.”
In less than a month, he had created something akin to a sacred opera, the story of the Gospel rendered into music.
Now, 269 years later, “Messiah” has not only become a musical instrument to grab the soul of listeners, but facts pertaining to its creation are also of interest to many.
Bradenton’s First Methodist Church is seeking to add some local singers to join the church’s already strong assembly of instrumentalists and choir in a 40-minute concert featuring selections from “Messiah” during the church’s 10:30 a.m. service on Palm Sunday, March 28.
The volunteer singers will get an added benefit for their contribution. They will participate in a series of classes on the history of Handel’s monumental masterwork leading up to the concert.
The classes, to be led by church music director James Johnston, will be from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday and from 7 to 8 p.m. every following Wednesday through March 24 at the church, 603 11th St. W., Bradenton.
“This was the brainchild of James Johnston, who has researched this work thoroughly,” said Parrish’s Bernie Hahnke, a singer and instrumentalist with First Methodist Church.
“He has performed it countless times. His classes, instructions and rehearsals are informed by this accumulated knowledge,” Hahnke said.
Johnston will take the singers through a history of Handel’s life and then a study of his masterpiece.
Each class will be followed by a one-hour choral rehearsal, leading up to a dress rehearsal March 27.
“We already have 35 voices, but we could use 50,” said Johnston, who adds that being a Methodist is not required to join the “Messiah” program. “We welcome anyone. I will be asking sopranos to sing with a light tone with very little vibrato because the original performances were done with boy’s voices.”
Hahnke agrees that one’s denomination or faith can be put aside for “Messiah.”
“It is a Christian text with its themes of Christ’s life, death and resurrection,” Hahnke said. “But having said that, the music is so powerful that no matter who is singing it or listening to it, it could and should be a deeply spiritual experience, no matter what one’s background might be.”
Both Johnston and Hahnke said “Messiah” touched them deeply at various points in their lives and continues to touch those who experience it.
“I was 12,” Johnston said when asked when he first heard it. “I was living in a small New Hampshire town. ‘Messiah’ was the first LP my parents bought me, along with a record player. It was a revelation. It was just so dramatic. If you listen to the music of ‘Messiah’ and operas, there is little difference, only that one is sacred texts and one is secular.”
Hahnke first heard “Messiah” when he was about 20, in college in Pennsylvania.
“I recognized immediately that it was something magnificent,” Hahnke said. “It was Bible verses. It was the Gospel told brilliantly. I do believe the hand of God was on this man. It was kind of a miracle.
“I once read that Handel composed the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ part of ‘Messiah’ with tears in his eyes. Handel was reported to have said after a performance in 1759, ‘Not from me, but from heaven, comes all.’ Many historians consider the 24 days the greatest feat in the entire history of musical composition.”
The March 28 concert will include Messiah’s famous “Hallelujah Chorus,” Johnston said.
“ ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ is usually performed at Christmas, but the correct time for it is Easter,” Johnston said.
About half of the First Methodist Church’s choir members are trained musicians with degrees in music, Hahnke said.
Johnston’s lectures will be taped and a transcript will be handed out to those who attend the March 28 concert.
Interested singers are asked to call the church office at (941) 747-4406.