Singing Handel’s ‘Messiah’ for 65 Years

Americana, Festivals, Hometown Heroes, Iconic Communities, On the Road, People, This Week in History, Traditions
on November 14, 2011
Vicki Cox Continuing a holiday tradition that began at the close of World War II, the Rockford Choral Union performs <i>Messiah</i> in Rockford, Ill.

Just as she has done every Thanksgiving weekend since the end of World War II, Elsie Lundvall stands on the front row of the alto section, raises her musical score and joins 140 voices to sing the story of Messiah, a biblical message of hope and peace, at the advent of the Christmas season.

“And his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace,” sings Lundvall, 88, who was 23 when she first performed Messiah with the group known today as the Rockford (Ill.) Choral Union.

The Choral Union was formed in 1945 from the choirs of Rockford’s Lutheran churches. Choir members wanted to present Messiah to honor U.S. military service members and boost hometown morale following a war that left more than 400,000 Americans dead and 670,000 wounded.

“We thought it would help people with someone in the service to have hope,” says Lundvall about that inaugural concert.

Today, U.S. military members continue to be honored and remembered during the free two-hour concerts presented each Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon of Thanksgiving weekend at Rockford’s Trinity Lutheran Church. Each performance draws audiences of up to 600 people.

“It’s a gift to the community,” says conductor Nat Bauer, 75, who has led the concerts for the last 10 years. “Some come to listen to a great classical work; others find spiritual meaning in it.”

During its 65-year history, the Choral Union has sung Messiah through the smoke of a 1979 neighborhood fire, the ice and snow of northern Illinois winters, and occasional absences of hired soloists due to illness.

“We’ve never canceled,” Lundvall says.

After 178 performances led by five different conductors and in two different churches, Lundvall has memorized all the parts of the complex composition, though she keeps her musical score in hand. “I don’t want to miss anything,” she says. “We’re telling the community the story of salvation. If the audience listens with its ears and heart, it will be touched by it.”

Written in 1741 by German-British composer George Frideric Handel, Messiah is one of the world’s most recognized choral works. During its first London performance, King George II rose to his feet for the “Hallelujah Chorus,” beginning the tradition for all to stand during its singing. With passages from the Bible about the birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Handel’s holiday masterpiece traditionally is performed during the Christmas and Easter seasons.

“It’s still doing what it was intended to do to-lifting spirits and morale,” says Cyndee Lipps, 62, president of the Choral Union. “We’ve had people walk in off the street and had their hearts turned because of the music.”

Rockford resident Ingrid Dahm has attended for 37 years. “It’s part of our holiday tradition,” says Dahm, 68. “When my children get back home for Thanksgiving, they all want to come. It’s the beginning of the Christmas season for our family.”

The singers represent more than 60 churches in and around Rockford. While open to everyone, rehearsals resemble reunions as family members and friends congregate to practice.

Steve Webster, 26, has sung in the chorus with his grandmother Bonnie Hinkle, 77, for more than a decade. “When I was in my early teens, I went to a rehearsal with her,” he says. “Then I listened to the CDs she gave me until my voice changed, and I could join myself.”

Debbie Ganzel and her husband, Ed, have participated for 16 years. “I’ve memorized so many songs because I want to sing them from the heart,” says Ganzel, 54. “I can’t imagine beginning the [Christmas] season without it.”

The group sings 15 choruses of the oratorio accompanied by a 15-member orchestra. Four professional singers perform the solos. Individual and corporate donations fund the concerts.

“Everyone knows Rockford performs Messiah on Thanksgiving weekend,” Ganzel says. “It begins the Christmas season. It’s right in there with buying gifts and putting up a tree.”