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Tradition and Continuity, from H+H and GBH

Members of the H+H Chorus record Messiah at GBH
Meredith Nierman
Members of the H+H Chorus record Messiah at GBH

The composer Gustav Mahler once wrote, “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”

Every community has its traditions, regularly occurring events that help mark life and connect generation to generation. Boston is no exception, and one of its longest standing traditions is the annual holiday season presentation by The Handel and Haydn Society of Handel’s choral masterpiece Messiah.

Though the organization first performed excerpts from the Handel favorite in 1815, their first complete performance of the work was on Christmas Day 1817. But the tradition that is truly remarkable is that, since 1854, H+H has performed Messiah during every holiday season. That first performance in this amazing continuum was played in the Boston Music Hall, which later became the Orpheum Theater. It wasn’t until 1900 that H+H moved the annual holiday season presentation of Messiah into Symphony Hall.

In fact, H+H has performed the piece more than 435 times, through a Civil War, two World Wars, thirty-one Presidents of the United States, and yes, a global pandemic. But, even during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1917 and 1918, the H+H forces and their audiences managed to gather in Symphony Hall to come together for this amazing piece, a passionate work that begins with the simple phrase, “Comfort ye my people.” And in that simple phrase lies the central purpose of traditions: they are comforting.

Over the course of generations, H+H has performed Messiah for about 1 million people, and their performances are highly anticipated events. With COVID-19 a constant threat that has so curtailed the arts, this year's presentation of Messiah was destined to be canceled, another casualty of a pandemic that has shut theaters and idled performers.

While that 1854 H+H Messiah was performed at a time when Boston’s minimal street lighting was energized by gas, today we are blessed with the beauty of technology, of machines that to an attendee of that first performance would seem like magic, and maybe magic is what it is. Thanks to the incredible technology available, an idea of how to continue a 166-year-old tradition began to emerge.

“What if? What if…” Those two simple words, which hold the magic of possibility, seemed like a wonderful elixir for these troubled times!

And so, a plan to use technology to save a great tradition transformed from an idea into reality. “Handel’s Messiah for Our Time” was recorded at GBH’s acoustically acclaimed Brighton studios with protocols developed in collaboration with doctors of infectious disease from Boston University and Harvard University.

A production plan employing robotic cameras, special singing masks for the chorus and soloists, and multiple rounds of COVID testing for the musicians was prepared by H+H and approved by the Commonwealth. A GBH team that has been working on streaming music programs since the pandemic began, relied on unconventional classical music recording techniques to capture Messiah.

By recording in a variety of studio spaces over multiple days, the chorus, instrumentalists, and soloists were kept socially distant and safe. This music was then layered together in post-production to allow for the majesty of this orchestration of Messiah to emerge. In the final production, some striking visual scenes of the pandemic are overlaid, connecting our troubled times to the music in a powerful narrative arc.

The challenges were many and the technical feat stunning; and the result is a Messiah for our time, with the music, itself more than two centuries old, played on instruments from the period, all captured and assembled using technology that didn’t exist a decade ago, let alone a century and a half ago. And in that lies the most rewarding part of this adventure, for, to rephrase Mahler, in this case, it was the fire of technology that has allowed the continuation of a grand tradition. And to quote Handel, “Hallelujah!”

May the show, as unusual and different as it is, bring comfort to audiences everywhere.

Watch a behind-the-scenes preview:

Stream the event live from GBH.

Read the press release for "Handel's Messiah for Our Time."