“For unto us a child is born,” croon the sopranos in one of the iconic choruses from Handel’s Messiah. Many of us are familiar with the music, which is performed in communities around the world as a holiday staple, but fewer know the remarkable history behind these words. Soon after its composition, Handel’s Messiah started being performed annually in benefit concerts to support the Foundling Hospital, at that time London’s largest orphanage. From year to year these concerts ballooned, and the orchestras and choirs involved became enormous: hundreds of singers, flocks of woodwinds, and whole regiments of trumpets! And eventually, these Messiah concerts not only supported the vulnerable children of London—they gave birth to the very concept of the large community choir. In fact, you can draw a direct line from the Foundling Hospital concerts to the existence of choirs such as Springfield’s very own Choral Society!
The Springfield Choral Society has a rich history of fifty-two years of singing, and its annual Messiah performances in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception have become a beloved local tradition. For many, the holidays are incomplete without Handel! For this year’s performance, the Choral Society and its director Jacobsen Woollen are circling back to Messiah’s early history, partnering with The Matthew Project to present a benefit concert titled “Unto Us A Child Is Born.” A quarter of the ticket proceeds will go to support The Matthew Project’s work with unhoused youth in the Springfield area. Music Director Jacobsen Woollen says that The Matthew Project’s work rings in perfect unison with Handel’s masterpiece: “The very words of the chorus “For unto us a child is born,” the use of the word us, is a profound expression of the “takes a village” ethos. And the entire history of this extraordinary piece, with the huge concerts at the Foundling Hospital, shows that collective singing can resonate far beyond the concert hall, becoming an inspiring call towards social progress and human connection. Few things are as deeply human as singing: its vulnerability can touch something in us, guiding us towards interwovenness and mutual reliance.”
The rest of the concert program continues playing with the central theme of children and parentage: the audience will be treated to Magnificat settings of two Bach’s: both the legendary Johann Sebastian and his son Carl Phillip Emanuel. The Magnificat is told from the perspective of Mary, reflecting on being the mother of Jesus, and is another holiday favorite. Rounding out the program is Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate, featuring Springfield’s soprano stalwart Diane Dietz. Mozart famously said: “Bach is the father; we all are the children!”
Joining the singers on December 9th will be musicians of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra, whose relationship with the Choral Society is deepening: just six days after Messiah, they will be joining forces once again for the ISO’s Holiday Pops concert at the UIS Performing Arts Center.
“Singing and congregating are at the very heart of the holidays, says Woollen, “and we like to think of our Messiah concerts as a big family get-together for Springfield. Nothing sends you home with that warm holiday feeling like the Hallelujah Chorus, especially ringing around the spectacular surroundings of the Cathedral. The feel-good factor is huge.” He adds, with a wink: “And if you stick around to the end, you may get to do a little singing yourself!” The Matthew Project and the youth it serves are certainly hoping for a big turnout. And seeing his masterpiece restored to its original social purpose, somewhere Handel will surely be smiling.