Handel’s Messiah: A history in photos, programs, and video
This post is a collaboration between UMS interns Meaghan McLaughlin and Kayla Silverstein.
UMS has a history of 135 years of hosting unique performers and bringing talents all over the world to perform on Ann Arbor stages. A massive factor in the founding of UMS and a piece of its history still today is the annual presentation of Handel’s Messiah. While history has changed the presentation of this monumental piece, the tradition is one that UMS patrons can look forward to every year. But when did it all begin?
Handel’s Messiah is a UMS tradition; the work has been performed in its entirety every year since 1941. Records indicate that the first time the UMS Choral Union presented this holiday piece was with a small choir, a mere fraction of the Choral Union today. Upon their first meeting, the choir director at the time, Dr. Henry Simmons Frieze, chose a piece out of Handel’s Messiah. The group quickly decided to devote their time and energy into mastering a few select portions of this work, meeting every Tuesday to rehearse. Their first concert was small but intimate, performed in the M. E. Church on December 16, 1879.
Photos from the UMS Archives.
This small-scale performance of Handel’s Messiah is rare today. The piece is most commonly heard with a large choir backed by an orchestra. The pioneers of the UMS Choral Union performed solely with a double string quartet and two pianos. Not quite what Handel had in mind, but I think he would appreciate the effort of these trend-setting singers.
The concert included ten works in addition to the two chosen choruses of Messiah: “For unto us a Child is Born” and “Lift up Your Head, O Ye Gates.” With so much attention and time devoted to learning Messiah, it fast became a tradition of the ensemble to study and perform bits of the work every December.
Fortunately for audiences today, the performance and tradition of Handel’s Messiah has grown and evolved with the times. The Choral Union today consists of 175 accomplished voices, a much fuller sound that gives Messiah that extra bit of power. Full orchestral accompaniment is now standard with the yearly performances as well as Hill Auditorium as the venue – an acoustically-blessed building that produces the rounded sound that brings the work to life.
Want more Messiah history? Check out the program for the original Messiah performance or watch our video history of Handel’s Messiah.
Share your favorite Messiah memories in the comments below.
Kayla Silverstein is a fourth-year undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, pursuing a dual degree in English and Creative Writing with a minor in French. She works as an intern in both the marketing and programming departments at UMS. In her free time, she enjoys running, drinking obscene amounts of coffee, and writing short fiction.
Meaghan McLaughlin is a former UMS Intern and a 2013 U-M graduate