December 2010
Billie Silvey
It was a cold Saturday in London.  Most days seemed cold
to me, whose blood and clothes were more suited to
winters in Southern California.  Frank and I had taken the
tube from Tottenham Court station near our hotel in
Bloomsbury to Charing Cross station near Trafalgar

We spent a leisurely day exploring the National Gallery—
mostly the works of
Romantics like Constable and Turner,
Blake and Fuseli.  After lunch at a sandwich shop in the
gallery basement, with its surprisingly up-close-and-
personal view of the statue of one-armed Admiral
through the low arched window, we studied the paintings of
Lord Byron and his contemporaries at the nearby National
Portrait Gallery.

St. Martin-in-the-Fields, a church whose
orchestra we had often waked up to on KUSCâ
€™s morning show of classical music, we saw the notice of
a candlelight concert that night.  The
Thames Chamber
Orchestra and Chorus would be performing Handel’s

On a whim, we picked up tickets, grabbed the tube back
to our hotel to change, then rushed back to the church,
which was bathed in the glow of what must have been
thousands of votive candles.  I couldn’t help wondering
who had lighted them all.

One of our tickets was mostly behind one of the large
columns, but I let Frank have the better seat, as he could
appreciate the niceties of technique.  I would be able to
hear as well as anybody.

Before long, the church was filled with the familiar overture
with its emphasis on violins.  Then came the clear soprano
lines, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your
God,� sung with that British clarity that most Americans
can only dream of.

Messiah is the most famous oratorio ever
written.  An
oratorio, like an opera, is a long musical
composition featuring chorus, orchestra and soloists.  It
includes both songs (arias) and spoken words set to music
(recitative).  The difference is that, while an opera has a
secular theme—usually passion, pain and death—an
oratorio has a religious theme.  The words come from
scripture, and it is presented in concert form, without
costumes or sets.

Handel was a German composer who attained success
writing operas in Italy, then moved to England, where
Italian opera was popular.  Over time, though, the fashion
changed, and the English grew tired of the contrived plots
and over-the-top emotion of opera.

Invited to Dublin by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Handel
wrote the music to
Messiah in just over three weeks.  The
words were selected by Charles
Jennens from both the Old
and New Testaments.  The oratorio was an instant success,
and has been popular ever since.

The first part treats the birth of Jesus.  It opens with
prophecies of Jesus’ coming from Isaiah 40 and
Malachi 3, climaxing with the chorus “For unto us a
Child is born.�
Part one ends with the lovely duet aria for countertenor and
soprano, “He shall feed his flock.�

Part two covers the crucifixion, using words from Isaiah
53.  The chorus, “All we, like sheep,â€� is a highlight
of that section, as well as “Lift up your heads, O ye
gates� and the bass solo, “Why do the nations so
furiously rage together?â€�  Part two concludes with the
“Hallelujah Chorus.�

Part three treats the resurrection, opening with the soprano
aria, “I know that my Redeemer liveth� and including
the bass “The trumpet shall sound� and concluding
with the triumphant chorus, “Worthy is the Lamb that
was slain.â€�  Most of part three is taken from 1
Corinthians 15 and Revelation 5.

That evening is among my most precious musical and
spiritual memories.
LA Phil