-by Mimi Rothschild
Almost all of us could sing (or at least holler) a line or two from the “Hallelujah Chorus.” It’s the one that goes, “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” But not all of us know the whole story of this wonderful piece of music.
At this time of year, you can probably find a live performance of Handel’s Messiah in your neighborhood, or on TV. It’s about two and a half hours long, which is a good length for older students, but may be too long for younger children. For the littlest ones, you might prefer to listen to a recording of just a few parts of the whole work.
Georg Frideric Handel wrote his Messiah in just twenty-four days after reading the verses it’s based on: it remains one of the great examples of God’s inspiration in art. The words come primarily from the book of Isaiah. The music was written in 1742. The first performance took place in Dublin in April of that year, and parts of the oratorio are still performed at Easter. Nowadays, though, Messiah is mostly sung at Christmas.
Even if you plan to go to hear a live performance, it is still good to listen and study some of the pieces ahead of time.
“For Unto Us a Child is Born”
For unto us a Child is born. Unto us a Son is given,
And the government shall be upon His shoulder.
And His name shall be called “Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”
This section is great for listening practice. There are very few words, but they are repeated in complicated overlapping patterns by all the different singers at different times. Have students take a pencil and paper and check off when they hear particular phrases. For example, you might ask the kids to make a check on the paper each time they hear the word “for” – it stands out well. Older students can listen very closely and say whether they heard male or female (or high or low) voices each time.
In the next section, listen for “shoulder” in the same way. This intensive listening feels like a game, but it helps children develop their attention spans and the habit of close listening.
All the voices then sing “And His name shall be called…” together. Discuss with your students why this might be so important that Handel wanted everyone to sing it strongly together. Read this passage in Isaiah 9:6 together and discuss what it means to say that “the government shall be upon His shoulder.” Remind the children that you have lots of names for them (pet names and nicknames) because they’re so important to you, and in the same way, we have lots of names for Jesus. The Old Testament book of Isaiah uses many of these beautiful names.
“And the Glory”
And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
And all flesh shall see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.
This song, with words from Isaiah 40:5, is a joyful celebration of the arrival of the Christ Child, and a wonderful verse to learn during Advent when we wait to repeat that celebration ourselves.
Reinforce listening practice by listening for the loud and soft parts of this section of Messiah. This is an important first step in music education, and a useful thing for kids to know in their daily lives, too. Have the children lift their hands way up on the loud parts and push them down for the soft parts. For the dramatic silence near the end, hands should be on the table or the floor.
Older students can listen for specific instruments in the orchestra as they play. Have them list the instruments they hear.
For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth
The kingdom of the world is become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ
And he shall reign forever and ever
King of Kings and Lord of Lords!
This section is as close as Messiah gets to having a part you can sing along with, so go ahead and sing along. Then look at some of the difficult words: “hallelujah,” “omnipotent,” “reigneth,” and “reign.” Have your students write the message out in their own words.
If you attend a live performance of Messiah, you may encounter two interesting customs that go along with the “Hallelujah Chorus.” First, people often stand up to listen to it. The story goes that King George was so excited the first time he heard it performed that he spontaneously stood up. Since no one was allowed to sit down while the king was standing, the whole theater full of people stood, too, and now it’s the custom to do so.
The other interesting custom associated with this song is that of allowing the people in the audience to come up and join in with the final chorus. Sometimes you can even buy a copy of the music in the theater so you can sing along.
Whether you enjoy the Messiah in a concert hall, on a CD, or on YouTube, your children will benefit from sharing in this important piece of our cultural and religious heritage.
Mimi Rothschild is the Founder of LearningByGrace.org the nation’s leading provider of online PreK-12 online Christian educational programs for homeschoolers.