By Frances Stebbins
I first sang “The Hallelujah Chorus” as a member of our small-town high school choir at an Easter Sunrise Service some 75 years ago. We stood out on the side of a rise that dominated the eastern edge of town. It was a clear but chilly morning.
Our director, “Miss Thelma,” who doubled as a math and homeroom teacher in our 200-pupil high school and also sang in the choir of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, was proud of us. A music supervisor from Richmond was there and he commended our performance.
I didn’t know anything about the piece which has been known for nearly 400 years as part of perhaps the world’s best-known oratorio, “Messiah” by George Frederick Handel. He was a German-born composer who spent part of his life in England where the king at the time also had strong German roots. The famous piece of music, generally sung with four major arias interspersed with a choir, dates from about 1740.
Since it was written to celebrate the life of Jesus the Christ, the work is often performed either at Christmas or Easter, for the entire anthem makes for a lengthy sit.
Two years later while obtaining my professional journalism training in Richmond, I was able to hear the entire Christmas portion. I was there with my roommate who happened to be a relative of our elderly housemother, Virgie Chalkley, who kept close watch on the 100 girls living in the Founders Hall dormitory enlarged from a Victorian home.
Mrs. Chalkley got tickets for performances at the nearby theater known as The Mosque which, at mid-20th Century, served as the city’s major auditorium. She generously offered them to young girls like Rosemary and me to enhance our cultural education. We went, but again the singers made little impression on me.
I guess I began to appreciate the majesty of Handel’s music about a decade later. Now married and established in North Roanoke County, late husband Charles and I had become active in a small congregation where I joined its choir.
In those early days of the parish, we had some good singers. It became the custom to sing some selections from “Messiah.” I remember, too, that a local radio station each Advent season would broadcast a performance by a choir from the north of England. I looked forward to it each year.
When I retired from covering for the daily newspaper the meetings of the Interfaith Roanoke Valley Ministers Conference because of family demands, I was given as a parting gift an album containing the full oratorio of “Messiah” so that even if I don’t hear its choruses enough on the air, I can pull out my vintage 33-1/3 RPM.
Not surprisingly, the measured classical compositions of the 18th Century are now my choice in musical history. With Handel my favorite composer of this period, I certainly put J.S. Bach a close second.
No one is around today to remember what music was like before radio became a standard article in every home. Though my mother taught me hymns and the popular songs of the early decades of the 20th Century and clearly had “an ear” for music, she had no training in performing it. Nor could she afford, as a single supporting parent, for me to learn an instrument. Not hearing the names of famous composers and performers on the air, she mispronounced some.
In my college years I had a small table radio and have never been without one since. I’ve grown accustomed to hearing the names of musicians from Continental Europe; they are often far removed from the familiar American.
Though with no solo voice, I can “carry a tune” and in a music appreciation test in a summer program a test revealed I possess “an excellent tonal memory.” Whatever that signifies, I taught myself to play a dime-store harmonica as a teenager and to pick out hymn tunes, familiar popular melodies and even a few bars from my favorite classical works on a guitar I bought as a senior adult.
I appreciate my limited talents as a gift of God that can be used for great pleasure especially during the Yuletide season. My Salem church’s nursing home ministry, where I assist with monthly Holy Communion worship in less-stressful times, is regrettably absent this year. Residents like to hear my guitar as old hymns stir memories.
A news release from the national office of the Episcopal Church announces that the dean of Grace Church Cathedral in Charleston, S.C., has just issued a new book of “Sung Stories: Hymns for the Life of the Church. “ The dean, Michael Wright, wrote one for the 230th Diocesan Convention celebrating one of the older congregations in the nation.
William Willimon, a notable United Methodist musician whom I wrote of when he visited Roanoke church gatherings, noted that the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, published a book of hymns as a young Anglican clergyman visiting the South Carolina colony in 1737.
As centuries roll by, the music of Christmas continues.