‘Messiah’ Sing-along celebrates the season, tradition, and the joy of song

For more than three decades, members of the campus and wider communities have joined their voices with those of Yale Glee Club singers each December for the annual “Messiah Sing-along” in Battell Chapel.

It’s one of their favorite events of the year for many of the student singers, according to Yale Glee Club director Jeffrey Douma. And for many Battell Chapel guests, the opportunity to sing with the Yale Glee Club excerpts from one of the best-known choral works in Western music is a not-to-be-missed holiday tradition.

This year’s “Messiah Audience Sing-along” will take place on Sunday, Dec. 10, at 1:30 p.m. in Battell Chapel, 400 College St. (on the corner of Elm and College). There is a suggested donation of $5, and the proceeds will benefit New Haven’s homeless. Scores will be available for $10.

Messiah” is an oratorio composed by George Frederic Handel in 1741 and first performed in Dublin, Ireland. The scriptural text that accompanies the work is based on the King James Bible, and tells of the coming of Jesus Christ as the savior of humankind, Christ’s passion and crucifixion, and his resurrection and ascension into heaven, finally closing with the famous “Hallelujah Chorus.” It is one of the most continuously performed choral works in musical history, with most performances taking place during the Christmas or Easter seasons.

According to Douma, the collaborative singing of “Messiah” began with former Yale Glee Club director Fenno Heath some years before he retired in 1992. When Douma first began leading the sing-along after arriving at Yale in 2003, Heath still helped conduct the musical performance. Originally, the event was known as the “Messiah Sing-in.”

The Messiah Sing-along is steeped in certain traditions: Part 1 of “Messiah” (“There were shepherds abiding in the field”), which contains the Christmas story, is always sung, as are some of the best-known choral sections, such as “For Unto Us a Child Is Born,” “And the Glory of the Lord,” and the audience’s especially beloved “Hallelujah Chorus.”

However, the annual event has also seen some changes over the years, Douma says.

About a dozen years ago, the Yale Symphony Orchestra (YSO) graciously agreed to take part, so we now have a full orchestra for the sing-along (it used to be accompanied by an organist). At around the same time, we began inviting singers from the Institute of Sacred Music’s (ISM) voice program to sing the arias, and inviting our graduate students in choral conducting to join me and Maggie Brooks as conductors.” Brooks is director of the choral conducting program at Yale School of Music and director of choral music at ISM.

This year, some 25 musicians in the Yale Symphony Orchestra will provide orchestration for the Messiah Sing-along.

Every year, first-year students join the ensemble, so the orchestra will have the continuity of performers who know [the Baroque piece],” says Toshiyuki Shimada, director of the YSO. Orchestra members also look forward to the annual performance, “even though it occurs during the very busy time of the year,” he says, adding, “We embrace the collaboration between the Glee Club and the symphony orchestra.”

The graduate student soloists for the Messiah Sing-along this year are Emilia Donato, Ashley Mulcahy, Haitham Haidar, and Edward Vogal.

The Messiah Sing-along also celebrates the spirit of giving during the season. Proceeds will go to the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen, which has been the recipient of a donation from the Yale Glee Club for about a decade.

I think it’s a beautiful thing that hundreds of people from all walks of life gather every year at the same time in the same place to literally bring to life one of the greatest works of music ever created,” says Douma. “It’s a testament to the importance of art in our lives, and to the joy of singing we all share.”