Need a little Christmas? Handel and chill: Messiah MOOC

Course: First Nights: Handel’s Messiah and Baroque Oratorio
School: Harvard via edX

While Italian opera set the standard in the Baroque era, German composer George Frederic Handel quickly gained popularity for his oratorios, which put operatic techniques to work in the service of sacred music. Handel’s Messiah premiered in Dublin on April 13, 1742, and remains popular to this day. Harvard’s Thomas Forrest Kelly (Morton B. Knafel Professor of Music) guides learners through Messiah’s musical highlights, while detailing Handel’s composition process, the preparations and rehearsals, and the premiere performance.
Learners in this module of First Nights need not have any prior musical experience. In this unit, you will learn the basics of musical form and analysis, the genres and styles used in Messiah, the circumstances of its first performance, and its subsequent history.

I hadn’t planned to take this course; I wasn’t even aware of it until one of my MOOCbuddies (hi, Richard!) mentioned it. I’ve sung most of The Messiah in bits and pieces over the years, not including the Hallelujah Chorus which I’ve performed (as soprano, alto, or tenor, as needed) about a dozen times in four different states – including one performance in a psychiatric hospital and one with a pick-up team of ESL tutors and our students in a nursing home, and one memorable year in which I performed it twice, once as soprano and once as tenor, with two different choruses. I always thought I was kind of sick of it.

But as it turned out, this was one of two perfect anecdotes to a world gone mad over the past weeks. No matter how bad the news, how crazy the antics of people who confuse reality and reality TV, I could relax for a short time in the evening with the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra and various members of the Holden Choir, the University Choir, and the teaching staff (another pick-up chorus of sorts, if a higher quality of pick-up) and the thoroughly charming Thomas Forrest Kelly – and Mr. Handel’s music.

No musical expertise is needed to enjoy the course. There’s a discussion of different types of composition styles – the various recitatives and choruses – but there’s plenty of demonstration. It’s also a look at the first performance from a historical point of view: where it was held, the customs of the day that would have prevailed (audiences were far less restrained), and a general discussion of musical authenticity. And there was music: small performances, granted, of the arias and choruses under discussion.

One of the discussions led to my finding the Claus Guth staged version on Youtube; it’s so bizarre, it’s like a different piece: sign language, a funeral, suicide, a christening, who knows what else. I have no idea what the thematic intention is, but it’s mesmerizing. And I never would’ve heard of it if I hadn’t signed up on impulse for this short, simple course – I never took a note, didn’t even open a file for it, missed a question or two, but still ended up with 105% somehow. This isn’t about rigorous academics: this is about truly appreciating music, something most music appreciation classes never bother with.

This course was exactly what I needed, at this time. And the best news is: it’s part of a whole First Night series; Beethoven’s 9th Symphony will be on the schedule in early 2016. Can’t wait!


One response to “Need a little Christmas? Handel and chill: Messiah MOOC

  1. Pingback: Ode to Joy MOOC | A Just Recompense

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