This year City Choir Dunedin (formerly the Dunedin Choral Society) celebrates its 150th birthday. Its first performance, on Christmas Eve 1863, was Messiah by George Frederick Handel. But it was not the earliest New Zealand performance of this oratorio. The Auckland Choral Society is proud of its unbroken tradition of performing Messiah for 158 years, and there may be even earlier performances – do any readers know?
The first performance of Messiah in Dunedin was an interesting by-product of the Otago gold rushes. The early Scottish Free Church (Presbyterian) settlers did not approve of singing opera or oratorio, but by 1863 their influence had been diluted by a sudden influx of new settlers. George West, conductor of the first performance, and many of the singers were associated with the Anglican Church.
Performing Messiah at Christmas is an English tradition that goes back to the early 18th century. Like most traditions, there is no logical reason to do it – it has simply been adopted over the years. Messiah is not a Christmas story, and the birth of Jesus Christ is mentioned only briefly. Rather, it is a meditation on the coming of the messiah as predicted in the Old Testament of the Bible, then a brief summary of Jesus Christ’s life, crucifixion and resurrection followed by the spreading of the gospel throughout the world. From a religious viewpoint, it makes far more sense to perform it at Easter – but audiences demand to hear it at Christmas.
The famous ‘Hallelujah chorus‘ ends the second part of the oratorio – a joyful celebration of the triumph of the forces of good over evil, with text from the book of Revelation. One part of Messiah tradition is that the audience stands for the ‘Hallelujah chorus’. Bass soloist Teddy Tahu Rhodes says that he looks forward to the electrifying moment when the audience stands – far more exciting than sitting passively, and a chance to acknowledge that the audience is part of the performance.
The tradition of annual Christmas performances of Messiah continues today in New Zealand and in many English-speaking countries. This year there are performances in the four main centres, and probably others elsewhere:
- 7 December: Christchurch City Choir – this performance marks the retirement of conductor Brian Law, who has conducted the annual performance of Messiah for the last 22 years
- 10 December: City Choir Dunedin
- 14 December: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Orpheus Choir of Wellington
- 16–17 December: Auckland Choral
You can hear a live broadcast of the performance by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Orpheus Choir of Wellington on Saturday 14 December at 8 p.m. on Radio New Zealand Concert.
So, congratulations to City Choir Dunedin on their 150th anniversary, and many thanks for inviting me and other guest singers to join in their celebration concert in October.