“Messiah” by George Frideric Handel has been hailed as a sacred oratorio for centuries. Certainly the rendition performed in the Salt Lake Tabernacle by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square on March 22 attests to that feeling. Conducted by Mack Wilberg, the performing groups continue their tradition of celebrating the life and ministry of the Savior through this beloved work.
Renowned opera singers soprano Amanda Woodbury, mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, tenor Tyler Nelson and bass-baritone Tyler Simpson were featured in the program, along with organists Richard Elliott, Clay Christiansen and Andrew Unsworth at the organ.
The lyrics of “Messiah” are taken directly from scripture and center on the birth, life, death and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s almost impossible to believe that such a theme could provoke fury and criticism. But when “Messiah” was first performed, critics and clergy considered it blasphemous for such a sacred subject to be done in such a theatrical format as an oratorio — akin to an opera without staging and costumes. The original peformances received lackluster success despite Handel’s popularity.
But, according to the program notes by Dr. Luke Howard, “it was a midday fundraising concert in the still-unfinished chapel at London’s Foundling Hospital … that helped turn around ‘Messiah’s’ fortunes.” The success was unprecedented, and more performances were soon scheduled.
“Easter-time performances of ‘Messiah’ continued each year at the Foundling Hospital, and Handel conducted or attended every one of them until his death in 1759.” Howard wrote that while Handel had originally written “Messiah” to prop up “his own flagging fortunes,” he discovered that it attained its highest success “when employed for the benefit of those with needs greater than his own.”
To this day, “Messiah” popularity remains. Its choruses have featured in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s repertory since the 19th century, Howard wrote. “And the choir has frequently led the way in making Handel’s celebrated music available to a wider public. Its first recording in 1910 included the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus in what is almost certainly the first record of a ‘Messiah’ excerpt made outside of England and the first recorded by a large, established choir.”
The “Hallelujah” chorus specifically has appeared on more than a dozen of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s albums over the years.
And so these performing groups continue to bring “Messiah” to large audiences. The oratorio was simulcast to the Joseph Smith Memorial Building and the Conference Center Theater on Thursday night and on Friday, March 23, a live stream was made available on motab.org/messiah, followed by on-demand availability through April 9. With the live-stream, churches and other organizations held “Messiah” Sing events independently. Photos from such gatherings were shared on social media with the tag #MessiahLive.
For more information on how to watch the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square performing Handel’s “Messiah” visit motab.org/messiah.