Handel’s ‘Messiah’ sung at Easter in England

Peter York sang The Messiah at Royal Albert Hall on Good Friday in 1965 and has been returning for more than a half-century. His grandmother gave him a printed copy of the oratorio 60 years ago and he has used it ever since.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Frank E. Lockwood)
Peter York sang The Messiah at Royal Albert Hall on Good Friday in 1965 and has been returning for more than a half-century. His grandmother gave him a printed copy of the oratorio 60 years ago and he has used it ever since. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Frank E. Lockwood)

In America, Handel’s “Messiah” is often a Christmastime treat, but in England, it is synonymous with Easter weekend.

The Royal Choral Society, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, performs it every Good Friday at Royal Albert Hall in London.

Since its debut there in 1876, only two malign forces have prevented the show from going on — Adolf Hitler in World War II and covid-19 in 2020.

This year, more than 3,000 people packed the famous venue, most to simply hear the music, a few to occasionally sing along. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and organist Richard Pearce accompanied them. Afterward, the performers received roars of applause and a lengthy standing ovation.

Initially, the group was known as the Royal Albert Hall Choral Society, but with Queen Victoria’s approval, the name was shortened.

“She was our first concert. We’ve performed for every monarch since then,’’ said alto Jackie Freshfield, a member since 1995.

Over the years, some of the world’s finest singers and conductors have had ties to the society.

Music director Richard Cooke, who has held the baton since 1995, says the group has improved over the past 28 years.

“[There’s] just better sounds, better tuning and better timing and better phrasing,” he said.

During a two-hour practice at the Grey Coat School on Monday evening, he helped them briefly fine-tune roughly 20 of the songs.

While the sound was magnificent, Cooke reminded them that Friday’s venue would be more demanding.

“What sounds big in here does not sound big in Albert Hall,” he said.

At times, he worried that the chorus sounded too cheerful, given the subject matter.

Rehearsing “And with his stripes we are healed,” Cooke cautioned: “We don’t want anything too jolly.”

Similar advice came as they sang: “He trusted in God that he would deliver him.”

“It’s not happy,” Cooke stressed. “It’s nasty.”

“Altos, you’re much too happy,” he added.

After “Worthy Is the Lamb,” the 130 or so choral members dispersed, aware that they would return two days later for another run-through.

Cooke compared Royal Albert Hall to “an enormous sitting room,” with the audience close by.

“There are better acoustics in concert halls like Birmingham and Manchester and Cardiff,” he said. But Albert Hall is “a top venue. It’s a historic venue, 150 years on.

“It’s a very intimate space, even though it’s absolutely enormous,” he said.

George Frideric Handel wrote “Messiah” in the 1740s. It made its debut in Dublin in 1742 and came to London the following year.

Eventually, it was performed at the Foundling Hospital, a home for abandoned babies. The annual performances helped Foundling Hospital raise substantial funds. Handel also remembered the institution in his will.

The Foundling Hospital is now a museum. The music, however, continues to inspire.

Peter York, 81, has sung bass in the choral society for decades. He sang the “Messiah” for the first time at Albert Hall in 1965.

His grandmother, a church organist, had given him a copy of the sacred oratorio’s score when he was just 18 and an aspiring organist himself.

Opening its cover Monday, he read the words she had written to him at the time: “May you always find pleasure within these pages.”

“She bought the book on the assumption that I may find it interesting. One day I may go to a concert and hear it,” he said.

She died without ever hearing him perform it at Albert Hall.

Noting that he has musicians on both sides of the family and plays the organ himself, York said music is simply part of his life.

“I have this congenital weakness that makes me go to choir practice every Monday night,” he said.

Freshfield also enjoys the choral society. “It’s therapy. It’s camaraderie. It’s a joy. I don’t what I’d do it I didn’t sing,’’ she said.

Soprano Kate Bevington, a choral society member since 1985, said performing the Messiah is “incredibly uplifting. You’re on a high for hours afterwards.’’

By the time she reaches “Worthy Is the Lamb,” it’s hard not to be emotional, she said.

“It’s very tempting to be so choked [up] that you can hardly sing the last few bars — and it’s still like that after all these years,” she said.

  photo  Members of the Royal Choral Society gather for a rehearsal Monday at Grey Coat Hospital in London. Their Good Friday performance at the Royal Albert Hall received a standing ovation lasting five minutes or longer. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Frank E. Lockwood)