How to Singalong

I don’t presume to know how one does the Singalong Messiah thing.  I am no expert.

[morning after emendation… There are different sorts of experts. Singers? organists, conductors, musicians? or the textual scholars, people who really know Handel?  I avoid the mantle of expertise because I don’t like class distinctions. In Roy Thomson Hall we’re all admirers of Handel, amateurs in the best sense of the word, loving the music & the art: except of course for those who are professionals.]

But I’m taking a family member along on the afternoon of December 21st, to Roy Thomson Hall. And I realized as we chatted back and forth about this, that this is a really good topic for the blog.

One might wonder how one approaches Handel’s Messiah. Does one prepare? Does one study the score, listen to the music, prepare one’s voice, warm-up the day of the event?  Yes yes yes…

And it’s not every day that one gets the opportunity to perform with accomplished professionals in the same piece. One of the great thrills –and there are several to be had—is to look up and to notice that you’re singing with all these people, including the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra & the Tafelmusik Choir. It’s heady stuff, especially in the more complex pieces.

Two years ago I had the singular honour of interviewing Herr Handel himself, although admittedly with some help from Ivars Taurins, the conductor of Tafelmusik Baroque Choir. Does Taurins have a special gift that he is able to channel the spirit of the departed composer? Or maybe it’s just the music that gets into him, bringing Handel to life.


I invoke that interview to suggest that above all this is fun. When you look at the pictures you can see it. When you come into the hall you feel the unique vibe: as though we were at a rock concert from the 18th century.


I don’t think anyone is stoned or drugged except perhaps with antihistamines stifling their coughs or cold symptoms.

I am reminded that seating is assigned by voice part. If you’re a soprano, sit among the sopranos. Altos sit with altos, tenor with tenors, basses with other basses.


For those who wanted to be among the same vocal type, they help us find our sections.

And there is also a general mixed section for groups that want to sing together.


Ivor Novello

While we do not sing the whole Messiah, we sing enough that one would do well to be accustomed to singing, the way one is as a regular church chorister.

Don’t underestimate the effort required. If you’re not in shape –that is, using the analogy of an athlete because in fact singing is an athletic discipline requiring wind & a kind of fitness—then you would do well to pace yourself. Don’t give it your all in the first part or you’ll be all sung out by the end.

We use the Novello score.

Not Ivor Novello, the composer & film-star, who shows up as a character in the film Gosford Park.

That would be the wrong Novello!

No, the score comes from a publishing house founded long ago by Vincent Novello. If you look around you’ll see that it’s the score everyone seems to use, as it appears that there’s a consensus around these versions of Handel’s music.  If you don’t own one of these, they will be on sale at Roy Thomson Hall.


Here is a list of the choruses sung in the Tafelmusik singalong last year, including page numbers from the Novello score (and please note, there are solos in between, which I’m leaving out of this summary).

In the first part of the concert before the intermission there are five big choral pieces:

Chorus: And the glory of the Lord 11

Here’s a version where you can see the score as you listen.

This version is from the Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, led by John Eliot Gardiner in a reading that might resemble what Tafelmusik under Ivars Taurins would do: except that there are an additional 2000 or more in Roy Thomson Hall, singing along.  But it’s somewhat useful practice to follow along with the score.

That text (like all of them) is fascinating, from the book of Isaiah.

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. (Isaiah 40: 5)

It’s a prophecy.  I find it comes true when I come to Handel & his treatment of the text, and remarkably it seems to happen to me every time.

Alto Air and Chorus: O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion 41

Here’s a wonderful performance (I love the alto’s pronunciation). Notice that the chorus gets little warning before their entrance. If you get too carried away with the alto’s performance you’ll miss your entrance!

The process of communication in this chorus never sees to amaze & overwhelm me. Is this number not a bit like a snapshot of the entirety of Christianity in miniature? Someone has heard good news, and they report it, and they’re spreading it and it does spread, from a soloist to a multitude.


Chorus: For unto us a child is born 55
OKAY the last two chorus examples were ideal performances by small ensembles.  That’s not what it sounds like when you add 2000 people in a singalong, no matter how perfectly you sing your part.

Will we sound as good as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Let’s see.

The next chorus comes in response to recitative lines from the Soprano.  When she gets to the lines “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavnly host praising God and saying” it’s time for the chorus to sing
Glory to God 68

One of the most exciting parts of Messiah is the dramatization of Christmas Eve.  We in the chorus get to play a chorus of angels. The strings almost sound like wings, don’t they?

And to close the first part of Messiah,…
Chorus: His yoke is easy, and his burthen is light 86

No we won’t go this fast. Our burthen (or Herr Handel’s burthen) will not be so light, not with so many singers.

But isn’t it cool, to be able to follow the score, to see your part, to sing a part of this amazing piece? What a rush!

And that brings us to the Intermission. Don’t mistake this for a halfway point, though. The usual full Messiah has three parts, with an intermission normally after the 1st part, with two big parts still to come.


Go to the washroom,

Perhaps have a coffee.

Because after intermission there’s lots more.
The first Chorus is  Behold the Lamb of God 91

And yes that’s Tafelmusik you hear.

There are several more choruses.

• Chorus: Surely he hath borne our griefs 98
• Chorus: And with his stripes we are healed 102
• Chorus: All we like sheep have gone astray 106
…a bit of comic relief: at least to begin.

The photos of the sheep are cute, and Handel’s vocal lines meander, truly tempting us to go astray.

“Every one to his own way?!”

Hopefully not in the performance of the music.

Then the Chorus: He trusted in God 115

And we come to Chorus: Hallelujah 171

Do we sing this loudly? Perhaps not if we want it to be musical, to be meaningful. Best to start softly, and to save something for later, rather than exhaust yourself on your first Hallelujah, right? And that means that it builds to something over the course of the piece.  To become louder, it’s safest to start softly.

•Then there’s the Chorus: Since by man came death 186

And finally we come to a pair of choruses to conclude, one after the other.

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain 217

…again allowing you to see the score as you listen.  It’s even harder if you allow the music to move you, which it inevitably does. But can one sing like a machine without emotion?  I wonder.

And then it’s immediately followed by the Amen

One of the wonders of the season is getting to hear these pieces anew, even if we know every note.  I never tire of them.   And when you’re in Roy Thomson Hall surrounded by so many others, the chemistry adds something.  I know I’ll make mistakes, and I won’t be the only one. That’s okay.  It’s a happening.

I’m looking forward to it. Perhaps I’ll see you there, 2:00 pm on Saturday December 21st at Roy Thomson Hall.


This entry was posted in Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays, Press Releases and Announcements and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How to Singalong

  1. Isabella N says:

    Great reeading your post

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s