On May 7, 1822, Thomas P. Matthews, “Sec’y” of the Addison County Musical Society placed an ad for their “Annual Concert at the Meeting House in Middlebury.” Extending a “general invitation” to “all Choirs in the County,” he also specifically and “respectfully invite(d) the assistance of Ladies acquainted with the music.”
What music would that be? Well, not what you might expect in the valleys and hillsides of a sparsely populated, farm-dotted state 3,000 miles away from Europe: Handel’s “Messiah,” the “Grand Hallelujah Chorus” and excerpts of Part III, to be exact.
Three centuries later, for the descendents of those Middlebury singers, as it is for many Americans, “Messiah” has become as synonymous with Christmas as Santa Claus and eggnog.
George Frederic Handel composed the oratorio in 1741 through the course of just 24 days. First performed in the winter of 1741-42 in Dublin, and in London the following year, the work — originally written for Easter — was an instant hit with European audiences.
Americans first fell in love with the resounding chords of the “Messiah” when excerpts of the three-part oratorio were debuted in New York City in January 1770. Philadelphia and Boston followed suit soon thereafter. On Christmas Day, 1818, the Handel and Hayden Society, founded in Boston three years earlier, performed the entire three part, 2½-hour oratorio for the first time this side of the Atlantic.
It’s not clear exactly when “Messiah” began to be performed in Vermont, but we do know that by 1800, even in this rural state, choral music was flourishing.
While Vermonters predominately sang a capella shape-note music of the “Yankee tunebook variety,” as Middlebury professor Larry Hamberlin called it, by the late 1700s, more elaborate music was beginning to be taught in newly established singing schools. A flyer circulated in Woodstock in 1794 argued the importance of regulating “harmony in the religious societies… and to... gain knowledge in the pleasing Art of Psalm singing.” In 1797, it was impressed upon the residents of Dorset that it was their “indispensable duty” to “support the public worship of God” through “singing the praises... with musical harmony and decency,” as “enforced by divine authority.”
One choirmaster, Jeremiah Ingalls — also a farmer, tavern-master, cooper and composer — gained quite the reputation around the state during his 1791 to 1805 tenure at Newbury Congregational Church. So much so that travelers would often plan their trip to include a stop in Newbury in order to hear his choir sing. Did they ever sing from Handel’s “Messiah”? Possibly.
In 1809, the “Hallelujah Chorus” was performed at a concert in Salem, Massachusetts. This was significant in that it was the first presentation of the chorus outside the limits of a large city — proof that the “Messiah” was on the move into more rural parts of New England. Ingalls may well have been familiar with the work, having moved to Vermont from the Boston area.
By the early 20th century, “Messiah” was still performed at Easter. However, the “Hallelujah Chorus” and the “Pastoral Symphony” were often performed as part of Christmas services. But it wasn’t until the 1940s that Vermont newspapers began to refer to the “Christmas music” (1941) or “Christmas section” (1943) of Handel’s composition. In Dec. 1944, Montpelier’s “Evening Argus” called it specifically the “Christmas Oratorio.”
On Nov. 30, 1951, the Green Mountain Junior College Chorus and Welsh Male Choir joined forces to sing the full work in Poultney. In 1956, the senior choir of Rutland Congregational Church (now Grace Congregational) invited area singers to join them to perform the “Advent and Christmas portions” of the “Messiah.” Around the state other musical organizations began to present the “Messiah” solely during Christmas, initiating a tradition that has continued (mostly) uninterrupted to today, an annual event that for many kicks off the holiday season.
This past Dec. 5, echoing the first “Messiah” performance three centuries earlier when Europe was introduced to Handel’s masterpiece by a choir of only 32 singers, Rutland Area Chorus presented the oratorio at Grace Congregational with a far smaller choir than in years past (as result of COVID). Even so, according to Times Argus’ Jim Lowe, it was “eminently satisfying.” This reaction, in turn, echoes a poem written by a Bostonian in 1818 “On Hearing Handel’s Messiah Performed” as printed in the “Vermont Intelligencer”: Through my frame / Thrills warm emotion, and the starting tear / Speaks the high rapture of the conscious goal. / If such on earth, O Harmony: Thy power.
What began as a collaboration between a German composer and an English librettist and performed in the grand music halls and cathedrals of Europe, found its way to the small meeting houses of pastoral Vermont. Another two centuries on we continue to stand in awe — figuratively and literally (as did King George II back in 1743) — at the majesty of this music that for many has come to define the season.
Joanna Tebbs Young is an author, freelance writer and historian, and teaching artist living in Rutland. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.