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Messiah's popularity language related?

It seems the popularity of sacred music is proportional to the inspiration it imparts to the listener.  Certainly much of that comes from the music itself.  Considering how the words of the text play a big part, I found myself wondering this Christmas season about Handel's Messiah.  Does the scriptural text being in English have much to do with the popularity of the work?  English is the most common language among the world's Christian population.  The universal "language"  of Instrumental music inspires very powerfully but texts surely contribute:  how much inspiration is gained from a text that is not understood by the listener?  Messiah is an amazing work from any perspective and worthy of it's great popularity but is the English language a considerable factor?   Perhaps this is commonly understood and accepted but in my ignorance, I wonder... 
Replies (25): Threaded | Chronological
on December 14, 2015 5:00pm
"Messiah" is extremely popular in North American, the UK and, to a lesser extent, in Germany (as far as I'm aware). Not as much so in other countries. That might give support to George Brown's hypothesis. However, aside from "Messiah," what are the choral/orchestral Sure Hits? "Carmina burana," Mozart's Requiem, perhaps Brahms' -- none of those in English.
Best regards,
Jerome Hoberman
on December 15, 2015 5:43am
In the late 1980s, I was in graduate school with a Japanese soprano who was working on her master's degree. She sang "Come unto Him" from the Messiah on her recital, and asked me to sing the preceding "He shall feed His flock". This led to my asking her why she chose this piece for her graduate recital, with the myriad of options available to her. She told me that the Messiah was popular in Japan and fairly frequently performed. I'm not sure if this is connected to its language (many Japanese learn English in school) or just to a Japanese love of music and order, both of which you get in spades with Handel's Messiah. Her singing of the aria was beautiful, by the way, and it was a joy for me to be a small part of her recital. 
on December 15, 2015 9:15am
During a big Mozart year some time ago I remember reading a survey of Americans about choral music they could name. The piece they know the best is Messiah. Next piece on the list is Carmina Burana. It is a sad state of affairs that the list ends there, and there is NO other choral piece, large work or short, which a lot of Americans can name.
on December 15, 2015 10:32am
Dear George!
You write: " how much inspiration is gained from a text that is not understood by the listener?" You say "but is the English language a considerable factor?"
The problem is not in English language, but in proper translations of ancient texts to any language.
The matter is that ancient idioms and metaphors (the essence of poetry) are not properly translated into any language. For instance English expression "Got home?" has nothing to do with house or abode. This simply means that a person does not understand utterred idea. Imagine that English is a "dead language" like ancient languages. Then this phrase would be translated literally: "Did you reach your home (or house) successively"?
I tried to resolve this problem by studying stile of life of ancient people to understand the meanings of their idioms. My results you may find at my page.
And you may express your own judgement about this.
P.S. "Night cap" does not mean a hat or cap. It means a glass of whisky before to go to bed. 
George! You rised and raised a very important question! 
on December 16, 2015 8:04am
Dear Audrey, I was born in England, but I can't think what "got home?" means. Could someone enlighten me?
on December 16, 2015 11:23am
Dear Katie! "Get home?" or "Got home?" or "Does this thing get to your home?" is well known English idiom. This question means whether the uttered saying reached (got) to you conscience and mind (skull=home) for proper understanding.
Got home?
For instance. I am a man, not a woman. But nevertheless you call me "Audrey" instead of "Andrey".
Got home?
on December 16, 2015 12:31pm
I would be curious to know what your source is for the phrase "get home" in the sense of "understanding something". Speaking as a bilingual English speaker and a language professional with almost 30 years of experience, I have never ever come across this particular idiom. Very strange.
Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Helsinki, Finland
on December 17, 2015 6:58am
Dear Jaakko! Living in the United States I many times heard this expression from "common people", not from professors in Molecular Biology (this is also my profession). Those simple people, I came across on suburban streets, used this expression both in New York and Boston area. (Not at Long Island).
Moreover I looked into Google translator before to answer you. I guess that you are very serious man who never uses and never hears the "slang" of Brighton Beach, Harlem and other areas. Have you ever browsered (from the verb "to browse" that means "to eat leaves and colloquial expressions (in New York Central park for example) among simple American people?
Even in Harvard University linguists collect and compile such an expressions in their vocabularies. 
If you doubt that I am (like you) "language proffessional", then please read my translations of ancient texts into English at my personal page. Also please read comments of some contributors within this particular discussion.
on December 18, 2015 7:41am
That's funny. I'm an American and have NEVER heard this phrase, even once. But then, California is like a different country than the east coat. 
on December 18, 2015 9:27am
 I too have lived in the United States all of my life--63 years--and have never heard the phrase. I have lived in seven states from Colorado to Virginia to Florida.  Has to be a regional phrase. 
on December 16, 2015 9:59am
Thank you very much Andrey.  I went to your page and WOW!  Your translation of the Psalms was amazing!  You have identified an important point concerning idiomatic expressions in translation.  Translators must know and understand the idiom in order to convey the originally intended meaning and there are many instances in scripture where that doesn't happen.  My favorite is where Jesus used the expressions "good eye" and "bad eye."   Christian scholars and preachers have supposed many different meanings of this but it clears up quite nicely when one understands that "Good Eye" (ayin tovah) simply means "generous" and "Bad Eye" is "selfish or stingy" in idiomatic Hebrew.  The same idiom is still used today in modern Hebrew.   This is one of the many indications that Jesus taught in the Hebrew language rather than Aramaic as the majority likes to suppose.   Most, if not all, of the difficult sayings of Jesus clear up and make perfect sense when translated into Hebrew by a Hebrew speaker aware of the idioms.  I recommend an excellent book on this phenomenon, "Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus" by David Bivin and Roy Blizzard who contribute much to the good work done by Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research (  Thanks again.    
BTW, like Katie, I too wonder what is the idiomatic meaning of "got home?"
on December 16, 2015 12:40pm
Dear George! Thank you!
I used in my work MANY of the Hebrew written texts that differ from each other like it shoud be for every written (not printed) ancient manuscripts. I did not restrict myself to Masoret text only. I also used Dead Sea scrolls (Kumran). And I also used Greek Septuagint and Greek Sinai texts because ancient jews used Greek more often at the very early stage of the development of their religion. And I also used Aramaic texts. They also differ from each other. And I also used Egyptian hieroglyphic texts of Psalms. So I made a kind of "consensus", knowing how differently ancient meanings were expressed and understood among different peoples and cultures. It was a hard work described in the detail in my book of translations edited in Russia. By the way, my translations were approved by all three main confessions in Russia (Christians, Jews an Muslims). Moreover I contacted with heads of those confessions personally.
Else, did you read my reply to Katie?
on December 17, 2015 7:40am
I'd hate this to become an ad hominem argument, but I'm curious to know what Audrey Luchnik's native language is. None of my UK English friends have heard the expression "get/got home". any more than I have. Also the use of "else" seems strange to me. At first, I thought there must be a contributor called Else, but I searched, and there isn't. So it must mean something like "In addition", "on another matter"... Doesn't seem idiomatic to me. But perhaps "got home" is a regional use?
on December 17, 2015 10:59am
Katie! "Ad hominem" means "for humans" or "before humans".
About the word "else". You are right that it means "In addition", "on another matter". You write that it "doesn't seem idiomatic to you". But I never insisted on that. It is generally accepted word and expression in English language. Further you write: "But perhaps "got home" is a regional use?" Yes, of course! But it is not "regional" but "marginal", as I already explained to Jaakko Mäntyjärvi. It is rarely used in Britain, but frequently used in the USA "melting pot of nations".
Else (also), you are curious "to know what Audrey Luchnik's native language is". First of all I am a man, not a woman, that you call "Audrey". 
What is your native language is, dear Katie? (By the way).
To relieve the tension in our conversation I dare to say that it is much easier for me to express my thoughts and feelings in English, because it is much less flexible than Russian. Flexibility of Russian is well above all the indoeuropean languages. So to write poetry in English is easier for me than to write it in Russian. In my translation of Psalms I often use Shakespeare language and King James Bible language, that is excellent! 
In Russian I use language of Pushkin's poem "Prophet" and some Russian words used before 16-th century.
However, when I make my science (molecular biology, not poetry) I enjoy my transcendental preeminence to be between two extremes: less flexible (analytic) English and most flexible (creative) Russian. Almost all the American great technical and scientific inventions were made by Russian emigrants (escaped from Stalin's extermination). And in Israel also. When they adopt Russian children and make them forget Russian, then they get usual people.
This is not genes, this is structure of thinking mentality. English is more appropriate for singing of very complex and loaded texts. But my dream is in eventual lifting of the ban on Russian language usage in Orthodox religion. Then we'll become free nation!
on December 18, 2015 4:58am
Dear Andrey, all is explained! Thanks for telling us that English is not your native language. Since you ask, it is mine. And it's kind of you to tell me what ad hominem means, but I don't think that's quite right. It is used to qualify an argument, to signify that it is directed at the person, not the person's argument. 
     True, you did not insist that your use of "else" was idiomatic, but I saw it as another indication that English may not have been your native language. And I should have noticed the lack of articles as a clue that Russian could have been your main language.
     I'm very sorry to have twice addressed you as Audrey. It's my eyes. When you originally wrote "First of all I am a man, not a woman, that you call "Audrey", I took this to mean that Audrey could also be a man's name. If you had said something like "I am a man, not a woman, so why do you call me Audrey?" that would have made me immediately look more carefully at the spelling of your name, which I have finally done. Incidentally, I approve of your transliteration of Андрей as Andrey and not the more fashionable Andrei. I think the letter "i" has a different role in transliteration from Russian from the letter "y". We agree on something!
     And finally, another apology: I had somehow missed your message which shows you are writing from America. So no wonder no English person knew the expression. When you said (16 December) that "got home" was a well-known English idiom, I had assumed you meant UK English. My mistake. Jaakko's English must also be of the UK variety. Incidentally, did you have a purpose in doubling the Fs when you "quoted" back at Yaakko his phrase "language prof(f)essional"?
on December 20, 2015 3:37am
Famous American writer Vladimir Nabokov was born in Russia...His main interests were entomology (studying butterflies) and "libguistic playfulness".
Strange enough I was butterfly collector all my youth. Later on I switched to enjoy sound (misic) of many languages, then I added real music to my literature skills. I love sound of language but hate spelling...
on December 16, 2015 4:52am
Messiah is the most popular work of its kind in Australia.  There are sometimes dozens of performances each year in the major cities usually to packed audiences - often in large venues.  These performances range from "sing along with organ" to major performances by the big Symphonic Choirs like the "Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Society" which has done the work every year since 1853, with full orchestra and featuring international soloists.  Historically it is most commonly perfomed at Christmas and to a lesser extent in Lent, and some commentators have observed that it has become a religious observance in lieu of Church attendance.  That idea has merit when we observe that the Bach Matthew Passion is almost an annual event as well - but in Lent - and almost always in English here in spite of the fact that it originated in German.  Add to the popular list the Faure Requiem - I think never in English!
on December 16, 2015 9:04am
I recall how some years ago my wife and I saw that the Fauré Requiem was being performed at a Baptist church in a nearby city.  Loving it so, we went and were SHOCKED when they started singing in English.  We never imagined it.  I don't know what we would have thought if were not already very familiar with it in Latin, but it was just...well, strange. 
Applauded by an audience of 1
on December 17, 2015 2:29pm
The first time I heard the Brahms Requeim, it was sung in English by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with the Philadelphia Orchestra during the opening of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in 1967.  I was a high school senior, and it was a great discovery for me, no doubt enhanced by being sung--that first time I heard it--in English.  I immediately wanted to hear it again, and I wanted to hear it in the original German.  I had studied German in high school, but not enough to gain fluency, and I would not have been able to follow the sung text in German that first time.  Over the years I've bought recordings by Karajan, Klemperer and others, attended half a dozen live performances, and sung in a community chorus performance, all in German.  Now, I can't imagine it sung in English!  I'll have to listen to an English version one of these days, just out of curiosity.
This, I think, is one measure of a choral/orchestral masterpiece: while the words are integral to the musical communication, they tolerate translation when necessary.  In other words, there is a hierarchy: a masterpiece will sound good without understanding the words, better if sung in one's native tongue, and best if sung and comprehended in the original language.
The Messiah, alas, always brings back bitter memories.  We were rehearsing it during the fall of my 10th grade year in high school, when the choir and band directors informed me that I was being banned from all school music activities because I would not play in the marching band for football games. 
on December 18, 2015 7:58am
I, for one, believe the language being familiar is paramount to Messiah's popularity. Memorability contributes to popularity. I have sung recently under an older conductor from Europe, who rarely provides translations for our community choir. It is clear to me by the choir's singing that they have no understanding of much of what they are singing. When I act as substitute conductor, I always provide a translation, otherwise, we might as well be singing solfege. Perhaps 50 years ago, Americans were perhaps better educated linguistically and had at least some knowledge of Latin roots. Perhaps not.  I suppose most Europeans are light years ahead of the average American in knowing multiple languages. I think it is a sorry state for us here, but then, living in central California, I can drive 10 hours north or south, and 4 days east, without needing to know another language. Conductors can help by requiring singers to find translations or by providing them. I think maybe my European conductor assumes people have the same understanding of the languages that he has.
On another note, I find it interesting and strange that many current composers use sacred texts that they don't seem to understand. The words fit musically, but the feeling of music doesn't seem to relate to the understanding of the text at all. It's just nice to sing in Latin and the available texts are mostly sacred, so that's what they use. I'm never sure what to make of it, and it seems to belittle the texts. Without living in the context of the church, how can one appropriately write sacred music?
on December 18, 2015 9:28am
The language matters, but the theme also matters, I think.
Christmas comes every year around winter concert season.
By the way, in Japan, Beethoven's 9th is the equivalent to Messiah in English-speaking countries during winter season.
Though Messiah performed among choirs related to Christian-oriented institutions like private universities and etc, the 9th is far more popular, and has long been considered to be the end of year performing tradition. Conductors, orchestras, soloists, choirs, everyone has something to do ;)
Other popluar works like Carmina Burana and Requiems are non-seasonal.
on December 18, 2015 7:27pm
Well...hmmmm, my original query has generated a good bit of thought and discussion!  But I'm still pondering the original question.  I've gotten some helpful insights and especially liked Andrey's bringing up the subject of employing idiom in texts.  Though we don't see much of that in classical sacred music, it IS a significant issue in the field of translation of texts.  The translator already faces the challenge of fitting text to music before having to deal with accuracy of meaning.  Sometimes when a translated text simply doesn't make good sense, there was an idiom translated literally.  I'm shall presume that Messiah being in English has contributed to it's popularity.  I appreciate all who gave thought it and made the effort to share.    
on December 21, 2015 8:46am
Dear George! You write: "The translator already faces the challenge of fitting text to music before having to deal with accuracy of meaning", referring to me. Probably I was misunderstood. Contrary, first I always translate text properly using transformation of ancient idioms to the modern ones, and only then I begin to write music to a "consensus" text, understandable to a modern reader (or singer). Once I met a man passing by our repetition room for choir. He did not distinguish the words of Psalm through closed door. But afterwards meeting me he said me that he heared Psalm 50 (51 in Masoret numbering). I asked him why he knew it without understanding the words. He answered: "Melody (tune) told me".
Dear George! In your present post of December 14 you say: "Certainly much of that comes from the music itself". You are right and bright. 
on December 20, 2015 11:19am
Here's an interesting short article about the genesis and premiere (April 13, 1742) of Handel's Messiah (it had nothing to do with celebrating Christmas):
"Handel's Messiah: Sacred or Profane?" is a very interesting article, as well:
on December 21, 2015 4:58am
That is correct. The original performance of "Messiah" took place close to Easter.
I find it interesting that no one has mentioned Mozart's German translation of the piece. It gets performed occasionally in the Chicago Area but the English version is more frequently heard.
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