Much of what I’ve said so far about Christmas has been traceable back to my mother, with respect to food and decorations. Now it’s my father’s turn, because it transpires that much of my seasonal music comes from him.
The Messiah is our first example. Sure, Handel wrote it for Easter, but it’s become Christmas music since then, and not just for my family. Lots of places have “Messiah sings” in December. We used to go to one every year; I can’t remember where it was*, though I can visualize the room almost perfectly. There was a small professional choir, whose soloists performed some of the arias and recitatives and so on, and then for the choral pieces the audience would stand up and sing along. The tenors were perenially weak — which was a very great pity because my mother’s voice, and mine once I got older, are on the low side of alto. (With training I could probably pass for an alto. With my present lack of an upper range, I find the tenor part more comfortable than any other. It only occasionally goes too low for me.) Really, though, we tended to grab whatever line we could hear and follow, even if we were in the wrong octave.
I associate The Messiah with my father because there’s a long-running tradition of it in his Ohio hometown. A few years back, they had their hundredth anniversary performance, and invited anybody who had ever sung with them to come back for the event. And make no mistake, it was an Event: most groups only perform a selection of pieces from the whole, but for this anniversary they staged the entire thing, all five or six or however many hours of it, with a dinner in the middle. Sadly, neither my brother nor I was able to go along. I’m still sad I missed it.
We used to have a five-CD changer hooked up to our speakers, and would put five Christmas albums on shuffle, of which one in any given load might be a volume of The Messiah. That was always a little weird, because there are tracks that are all of sixteen or thirty-five seconds long, brief transitions between one piece and another, that I’m not very familiar with, and which sound weird out of context. But “And he shall purify” and “Lift up your heads” and (of course) the “Hallelujah Chorus” are staples of the season.
*My mother, who is sitting next to me frantically trying to finish cross-stitching a stocking for my brother’s fiancee, tells me it was at UTD.