Saturday, October 27, 2007

An early start

Usually I wait until Advent to pull out my Leonard Bernstein version of the Messiah CD. But since I was feeling crappy last week, I was indulging in the Easter half and it was like drinking a magic potion. I felt cured of what ailed me.

Bernstein created great controversy when he reworked the Messiah. Instead of three sections, he divided it into two: Christmas and Easter. He shuffled some of the arias and choral pieces. He moved the Hallelujah Chorus from Easter to Christmas, which was utterly scandalous to purists. (And the one change I disagree with.)

He also used a completely American cast, including 2 African Americans, which must have been quite forward thinking in the 50s.

I first bought my copy of the CD when I got baptized 4 years ago. Early in my first Advent as a Christian, I went to a 'Messiah Sing' at Providence College with my friend Carmen. I had never heard any of the music other than the Hallelujah Chorus, so it was all new to me. We stood in the Alto section, which isn't really where I sing. (Tenor, if you must know, LOL!) And I had a very hard time following all the lines of music. Plus I don't sight read, so I was bumbling around quite badly.

But oh, the music. What music! There were particular pieces that just blew me away.
"And he shall be called Wonderful. Councilor. Almighty God, the everlasting power, the prince of peace...." I cried during that one. Because he IS wonderful.

The next day I went to Barnes and Noble and lucked into getting Bernstein's version.

It is interesting to me that a Jewish conductor seemed to understand the power of the Jesus story so deeply. I have heard several versions since then, and none, as far as I can tell, have nearly the power that Bernstein brought to it. The Pastoral Symphony, in particular, is one of the most astounding pieces of music I have ever heard. The first time I listened to it, it was like experiencing Christmas and Holy Week, Advent, Lent and Epiphany all at once. There is the tenderness and sweetness of the violins heralding the birth, but just under the surface, the double bass foreshadows the crucifixion. I still weep when I hear it.

By now, having listened to the cds more or less nonstop every Advent and Lent, I can sing the whole score. I know every word, at least of Bernstein's version, which is shorter than the standard productions.

And today, while listening to the Christmas half, I heard a little voice from the back of my car singing along.

Thank you Handel. Thank you Bernstein. Thank you God.

I am already thinking ahead to Advent.


Shannon said...

I've worn out vinyl records, cassette tapes, and even the CD set of Bernstein's "Mass" which was the work that opened the Kennedy Center all those years ago. Good music has staying power, that's all there is to it.

Widening Circles said...

I once heard a countertenor sing "He was despised" in a live performance of Messiah, and I was moved nearly to tears. It's still one of my favorites from Messiah even though it's not nearly the same if sung by a woman, as is more common.

(And by the way, we have several female tenors in the community chorus I sing with on Sunday nights.)

Rachel said...


I have never heard "Mass" but checked it out at your recommendation and may have to get a copy. As a rule I am not a big fan of modern 'classical' (is that an oxymoron?) but Bernstein is so gifted that I am sure in his hands it was wonderful stuff.

Widening Circles-

Isn't countertenor amazing? We have an Anglo-Catholic parish here in Providence with a couple of countertenors in their schola cantorum. The first time I heard them sing I was amazed at how different it is from a soprano sound. In this case, richer, and deeper, even though it is more or less the same octave. I can imagine that particular piece, which is powerful anyway, must be doubly so when sung by a man.

In addition to our regular choir, my church has a less formal drop in one that sings once a month or so. I am usually the only tenor singing with the choir director!

Shannon said...

"Mass" has a good dose of 70s angst, but "Sing God a Simple Song" makes me cry every time.

Singing Owl said...

I've never heard the Bernstein version. You've convinced me I need to a.s.a.p.

Mary Beth said...

Me, too. What SO said.

My husband is a countertenor! :) Amn't I the luckiest?

Widening Circles said...

A countertenor! I'm impressed!