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Let me share my first taste of the transcendent power of music.

It was probably 1976. I was in high school. I went to the Calgary Jubilee Auditorium to experience Handel’s Messiah for the first time. It was a youth group outing; some of the members knew the music well, but most of us were experiencing it for the first time.

Of course, I had heard bits and pieces of the celebrated Hallelujah chorus, but I doubt that I had ever heard it in its entirety. And I’d probably heard bits and pieces from other parts of the oratorio, but never knew it. I did know that there was an orchestra, choir and soloists. I have no idea how I knew this, but I remember expecting a harpsichord and being pleased to have my expectations met.

G.F. Handel

I’m much more familiar with Baroque music now, so I smile a bit at my innocence. But I was a kid who listened to rock and roll, my mom was a Lawrence Welk fan, and my dad listened to country radio. Going to Messiah was pretty heady stuff. And, yeah, I was sitting with some girls that I kinda liked.

The evening opened well. The music is attractive without unreasonably challenging the novice listener. I liked it, even if I didn’t quite “get” it. The libretto is in English. Better yet, it’s straight out of the King James Bible, so it was pretty familiar too. Win. The pattern was fairly straightforward. Usually the singers would sing a simple piece (recitative) and then follow it with a more dramatic bit (aria). Interspersed at apparently random intervals were instrumental passages and full-choir numbers (choruses). Everything made sense and I was content. And enjoying the company.

Suddenly and without warning, the violins caught every fragment of my attention. The people around me vanished. I could feel the hair on my arms standing up. The female voices of the choir entered my mind.

For unto us a child is born.
Unto us, a son is given.

The male voices entered. Singing the same words. The women sang their parts again and the parts of the choir began an elaborate conversation.

And the government shall be upon his shoulders.

Something was changing. I stared ahead, leaning forward in my seat.

And his name shall be called
Wonderful Counsellor
The might God
The Everlasting Father

I became aware of my heart pounding the inside of my chest and a thrill coursed through my body. Nothing—not music, not art, not another human being had ever taken me to this place. Thrilling is the only word I know that comes close to the experience. I was alone with the music and it was nothing but excitement.

The Prince of Peace.

The same musical ideas were repeated and reshaped, and all I could do was tremble.

The chorus was followed by a lengthy instrumental break (the “Pastoral Symphony”), giving me a chance to think. To collect myself. To look around at the others—I didn’t think they were with me, and I was slightly disappointed.

I can’t say I remember much more about the evening. I do remember standing for the Hallelujah and feeling a slice of the excitement from before, but it wasn’t the same.

And in the weeks before Christmas, I listen to Messiah in its entirety well, a few times. Some years I go to a live performance. This year, I didn’t. But every time I hear For Unto Us a Child is Born I relive a bit of that transcendent moment in 1976.

I can’t quite recapture that original thrill. But I get close. And I deeply enjoy remembering it.

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