The Washington Cathedral Classical Music Christmas Concert discussed in this paper witnessed the performance of a number of pieces, including Handel’s “Messiah”, John Francis Wade’s “O come o ye faithful”, Philip Brooks’ “Little town of Bethlehem”, and Franz Xaver’s “Silent Night”, as performed by the Washington National Cathedral Choir together with the Baroque Orchestra.
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Conducted by the cathedral’s music director, Michael McCarthy, the two-day concert took place in December 3-4 2010, at the Washington National Cathedral. Given that the concert was in December during the early Christmas season, the compositions performed were geared towards ushering in the mood of Christmas, and I feel that the Washington National Cathedral Choir, together with the Baroque Orchestra, achieved this aim.
The pieces were performed beautifully; actually, I got a sense of satisfaction and deep rumination of the Christmas season because of the expressive execution of the pieces by the band and the choir. The conductor ensured that after the performance of each piece, a suitable break occurred whereby the viewers and the concertgoers could take time to “take in” the previous piece’s performance.
However, I found it a little unfortunate that no illustrations of the wordings (text) of the various pieces performed accompanied the performances of the pieces, and I felt that such an addition would have enhanced the performances.
In such concerts, there are many viewers who cannot recall the wordings of all these Christmas songs or know the wordings altogether, though they may be familiar with the tunes and melodies. Therefore, a projection of the texts of the compositions on the many screens available in the concert hall would have enhanced the experience of many viewers, including myself.
One of the aspects of the music concert that appealed to me was the harmonious performance between the band and the choir. Many times the choir would sing some compositions alone without instrumentation by the orchestra band, while on another occasion the band would exclusively play the instruments with the choir remaining silent, before they joined their voices and instruments during a climactic part of a composition – chorus – to create beautiful harmony. What a beautiful soul moving performance.
The band made extensive use of the violin in the instrumentation, an aspect I found quite soothing and relaxing. The band used the violin to complement the singing of the choir, or to accompany a soloist performance in various aspects of the compositions. For instance, during the performance of Handel’s “Messiah”, the slow and ‘inviting’ strokes of the violin by the band introduced the soprano soloist before she began to sing, creating an effective stage for her singing.
Additionally, I feel that the performers did a good job overall. The Washington National Cathedral Choir, together with the Baroque Orchestra, made the concert a worthwhile treat, and I personally felt a sense of fulfillment from watching the concert. The Washington National Cathedral itself served as an appropriate venue and I felt the cathedral’s massive hall enhanced the performance of the band and the orchestra.
As aforementioned, one of the performed pieces was “Messiah”, composed by George Handel. Handel’s piece, “Messiah”, was composed in the year 1741 (Vroon and Barker 54). “Messiah” is composed of three parts whereby, each part underscores the story of Christ, from his prophesied coming, his acts while on earth, and his eventual victory over death. The “Messiah” was one of the pieces in the concert that I found to be most captivating.
The piece begins with the slow and rhythmic introduction by the Baroque orchestra band, without any voices from the Washington Cathedral Choir. The Baroque orchestra band utilizes violins in the opening stages of the piece, an introduction that sets the stage for a female soloist. The soloist then sings her heart out with a slight accompaniment of the violin by the band, as she recites the story of Jesus Christ, the basis on which the entire “Messiah” composition lays.
The soloist’s introductory performance borders on a recitation or narrative, and such compositions are known as oratorios, as “Messiah” by Handel is. There are several aspects of “Messiah” that I found to be fascinating. For instance, the band and the choir in this composition worked together to effectively tell the story of Christ. The band would play slow tunes when the text of the song was sad and lively tunes when the choir was singing about a lively aspect of the life of Jesus Christ.
This pattern of tying the instrumentation to the message enabled the viewers and concertgoers to adopt the various moods and tones evoked by this composition effectively. For instance, in the choir’s rendition of Section I recitative “Darkness shall cover the earth”, the general tone of the choir creates a mood that evokes sadness and the viewer gets engrossed in this mood for a moment.
“Messiah” has diverse variations and there are sections in the piece when the intensity of the singing rises to very high climactic heights before again slowing down to a stable melody and rhythm. The listener is thus able to listen to the song and experience the different moods even before the specific words and phrases get pronounced and in my opinion, I hold that concertgoers should be treated to such experiences; its worth one’s time, energy, and resources.
The polyphonic nature of the musical texture of “Messiah” derives from the fact that the orchestra band combines with the choir to perform this oratorio. Effectively, the different instrumentation and the singing produce a polyphonic texture, which can be quite intense sometimes, especially in the choruses and the intense repetitive rendition of the chorus “Amen”.
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Oratorios generally tell stories, and “Messiah’ is no exception (Barker 62). The fact that “Messiah” is composed of three parts gives the piece a distinct form and a repetitive rhythm (Davies 466). Because this particular oratorio has a narrative aspect to it, there is a specific rhythm and form present.
These parts all begin with recitations that lead to choruses, which are the climax. Each section has its distinctive function; for instance, section I prophesies of the coming Messiah. Section II tells of the Messiah’s acts and his glorious earthly existence, while section three tells of his triumph over death. All these sections create a particular form and rhythm throughout the Oratorio.
In conclusion, the concert at the Washington National Cathedral was a revelation of the supreme and relaxing nature of classical music. Even though I may have heard some of the pieces in folk form before, the classical rendition by the Washington Cathedral National Choir and the Baroque Band gave the songs a new aspect. This concert, so far, is the best concert that I have ever attended in my life.
Barker, John. “Overview: operas and oratorios.” American Record Guide 66.1 (2003): 62-64.
Davies, Andrew. “Oratorio as Exegesis: The Use of the Book of Isaiah in Handel’s Messiah.” Biblical Interpretation 15.4/5 (2007): 464-484.
Vroon, Donald, and John Barker. “Overview: Handel’s Instrumental Music & Messiah.” American Record Guide 64.6 (2002): 52-54.