‘Messiah’ still magical after so many years

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 1, 2002

The legends are fascinating.

The reality is even more compelling.

In the late summer of 1741,

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George Handel was urged by a friend, Charles Jennens, to write an oratorio, or spiritual opera, after a slump.

Handel was in debt, depressed, and very close to leaving his home in England.

At the same time, Jennens sent his letter to Handel with his ideas for an oratorio, another arrived from the Duke of Devinshire in Dublin, Ireland, urging him to create a composition for a series of benefit concerts to help prisoners in the jail there.

Handel took both letters and from there, launched into his miracolous composing of “Messiah.”

It took 24 days: The first part taking six days, the second nine days, and the third in six.

Two days of fillers and it was complete.

Then, the legends come into play.

It is these that fascinate people. It is said that Handel barely ate until it was finished.

Each day, a maidservant would come to the composer and beg him to eat.

Each time, he waved her off.

Tears mingled with the ink as Handel furiously scribbed out his legacy. “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and great God Himself,” Handel was reported to say at one point.

More than 260 years have passed since the original composition was written. Fact and fiction combined, “Messiah” still captivates audiences around the world.

The latest performance of the historic oratorio will be tonight at First Presbyterian Church at 7 p.m., presented by the Selma Choral Society.

For many, it will not be the first time they have sung the work.

For 55 years, the society filled church halls with the riveting passages of scripture that compose the oratorio. And many of the people singing in it have been doing so for years.

Sarah Morelock, who has been the organist for 22 of the past 26 years, remembers the first time she heard “Messiah.” She was six years and went to see it with her mother. It was a magical experience for the little girl.

“I fell in love with it then,” she said.

Arlene Phillips has only lived in Selma for a few years. The first year she lived in town, she went to see “Messiah.” Sitting in the audience, she knew this was something she wanted to become part of.

“I was determined to join them next year,” Phillips said.

It is a family tradition for Johnny Russell, who will be 78 in February. He proudly displays programs from “Messiah” performances that took place nearly 20 years ago.

He doesn’t quite remember when he first performed in “Messiah,” but does remember performing in places like Judson College.

“Gosh, I don’t know,” Russell replied. “I didn’t miss a year for a long time.”

Then, it did stop for awhile.

But, son Vaughan got his dad back in the choir loft.

“I said I wouldn’t sing in it without my dad,” Vaughan said.

Dick Morthland does remember when he started in “Messiah.” At age 61, this is his 45th year singing in the production. He started back when he was in high school.

Marcia Edwards has also sang in “Messiah” since she was in high school. Twenty one years later, she is still at it.

“I never get into the Christmas spirit until we do this,” Edwards said.

The society members are familiar with the legends and quickly added another. It is said that when King George II heard the Halleujah chorus, he was so moved that he leapt to his feet.

During those times, when the king stood, everyone stood.

So, they also rose to their feet. It is a tradition that still carries on today.

The staying power of “Messiah,” the legends and traditions are part of why people still embrace it.

“It’s like getting a drink of fresh water,” said Karl Dee Smith. “It’s like my marriage, it keeps getting better and more exciting.”

And, it is still magical to Morelock after so many years.

“Sometimes, instead of us making the music, we become part of it,” she said, then smiled. “It’s like I hope Heaven will be.”