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Holiday classic

George Frideric Handel was fluent in German, Italian, French and English. But the language in which he spoke most enduringly was music. And the great German-born, British-naturalized composer spoke perhaps no more profoundly than in his "Messiah,...

Jo Ann Miller

George Frideric Handel was fluent in German, Italian, French and English. But the language in which he spoke most enduringly was music.

And the great German-born, British-naturalized composer spoke perhaps no more profoundly than in his "Messiah," a work that, for many, is inseparably tied to Christmas.

The North Dakota State University Concert Choir, along with the Baroque Festival Orchestra will tackle the classic this year, performing about two-thirds of the massive work Sunday. The performance is part of this year's NDSU Division of Fine Arts Baroque Festival.

Even shaving off a few items here and there, the performance will still last about two hours or perhaps a little less, says Jo Ann Miller, music director for the Baroque Festival.

The history

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Handel composed the piece in 1741, but it was actually the literary scholar Charles Jennens who selected the texts for the oratorio, taking them from the Bible.

A BBC article states that it took Handel only about three weeks to complete the oratorio, which includes the famed "Hallelujah" chorus. It premiered in Dublin, Ireland, in 1742.

Reception of the work's first performance was outstanding. The Dublin Journal stated, "Messiah was allowed by the greatest Judges to be the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard."

According to allmusic.com, "By the time of the composer's death in 1758 'Messiah' had already attained an iconic status it has never relinquished."

Unlike some music from the Baroque era, it has had an unbroken tradition of performance, says Miller.

Though the work has become closely associated with Christmas, its depiction of Jesus is actually much broader than the Christmas story and includes the passion, the resurrection and the end times.

As to why it came to be associated with Christmas, Miller points to the first division of "Messiah," which focuses on many of the sacred themes of Christmas. She says people were likely drawn to that first section because those are the choruses that are most well known, because that section forms "a cohesive musical whole by itself," and because it is somewhat technically easier than the other two.

'Messiah' and deism

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Of course, art never arises in a vacuum. And Concordia Choir Conductor and Associate Professor René Clausen says there is strong evidence that Jennens developed the libretto - the lyrics - largely to combat deism.

The deistic belief system was influential in the 17th and 18th centuries and holds that God had created the universe but then took a hands-off approach and let the creation run itself, so to speak.

Thus, for the deist, says Clausen, Jesus would be fictitious or simply a man.

The text of Handel's oratorio, on the other hand, emphasizes the coming of Jesus as the Messiah, what Christians regard as the most significant of divine interventions.

An enduring classic

Clausen says the work has endured in part because it is very "singable" and "listenable."

"Music won't survive that doesn't have some intrinsic musical worth," he says.

Along with its musicality, Clausen also believes the work's scope of emotional impact has contributed to its endurance.

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He notes "the breadth of emotions depicted in the work - everything from the fiery 'Refiner's Fire' to the pastoral 'He Shall Feed His Flock' to the powerful and majestic 'Hallelujah' chorus."

Also, Miller notes that Handel made few dynamic markings for the piece. That fact means the director has a good deal of flexibility in interpreting the work.

"You can try different tempos and different dynamics and different articulations every time you do it and still have a successful performance," she says.

The performance of "Messiah" has become an annual NDSU event, and Miller says the college-age performer is perfect for the oratorio. Their voices are still "light and flexible," which is needed in Baroque music, but their voices also have strength and depth.

If you go

- What: Handel's "Messiah"

- When: 2 p.m. Sunday

- Where: Festival Concert Hall, NDSU, Fargo

- Info: $15 for adults; $12 for seniors; and $5 for students. (701) 231-9442 or www.ndsu.edu/finearts

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734 Holiday classic J. Shane Mercer 20071207

Jo Ann Miller

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