Without Charles Jennens, a wealthy British music and literary patron of the 18th century, nobody would be singing the “Messiah” at all. Thankfully, Jennens existed — and on Saturday, Dec. 15, the Cumberland Oratorio Singers will perform “Messiah Sing” at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church.
In 1741, Jennens — who had collaborated with George Frideric Handel on a few prior pieces — sent Handel the libretto (text) of what became Handel’s “Messiah.” Pulling passages from the King James Bible and the Anglican Church’s Book of Common Prayer, Jennens arranged them in such a manner as to depict the chronological annunciation, birth, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Once Jennens sent Handel the words, Handel composed the music (including the famous “Hallelujah” chorus) in less than a month. Familiar with the biblical allusions in the text, Handel also divided the oratorio into three distinct parts. Part I depicts the annunciation and the birth of Jesus Christ. Part II covers Christ’s death and resurrection. Part III depicts Christ’s ascension and subsequent glorification.
Although born in Germany, Handel moved to London in 1712. He had made his mark as a composer of lavish Italian operas. However, in the mid-18th century, opera began fading out of style in England in favor of English language oratorios. Webster defines an oratorio as “a long dramatic musical composition, usually on a religious theme, sung to orchestral accompaniment. It is presented without stage, action, scenery or costumes.” According to one of his biographers, in order to maintain relevance and solvency, Handel began composing the more popular oratorios.
“Messiah” debuted in Dublin in 1742 as a charity event. This original presentation was sung by a choir of 16 men, 16 boys and two women soloists. The orchestra consisted of strings, two trumpets and timpani. Over subsequent centuries, the size of both the choir and orchestra grew exponentially into lavish musical productions culminating in a production with 2,000 voices and a 500-piece orchestra. Handel’s original score underwent multiple revisions to accommodate these ever-evolving productions. Even Mozart scored a revision.
The recent trend has been to scale back the oratorio in size to Handel’s original score and to keep the choir and orchestra more suited to the smaller venues in which Handel would have performed — like Friendship Missionary Baptist Church where COS will perform “Messiah Sings!” Under the direction of Jason Britt, the COS will present Part I of the “Messiah,” which tells the Christmas Story. Caroline Vaughan will sing the soprano solos, Linda Vandervort will solo at alto, Melvin Ezzell is featured as the tenor soloist, and Jeffery Jones will solo at bass.
According to Britt, the COS present “Messiah Sings!” each year as the group’s gift to the community in which they have been growing and performing for more than 25 years. In addition to the oratorio, the event will feature the Cross Creek Chorale and the newly formed Campbellton Youth Chorus singing traditional holiday music. The concert starts at 5 p.m. and is free and open to the general public. Season tickets are available for $45. For tickets and information, visit www.singwithcos.org.