NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, January 2nd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Every year, thousands of ordinary people participate in Chicago’s Do-It-Yourself Messiah. They don’t rehearse as a group, they just show up and sing.
EICHER: Most of them do it because they like being part of one of the most iconic musical pieces ever written.
But they may not all realize is that they’re singing verses straight out of the Bible.
WORLD Radio’s Anna Johansen went backstage at the DIY Messiah to find out more.
AUDIO: [Violins tuning]
ANNA JOHANSEN, REPORTER: The theater is crowded tonight. There’s no assigned seating, but people mill around and sort themselves into the right vocal sections: soprano, alto, tenor, bass. Most of them carry their own copies of the Messiah score.
AUDIO: I’d say about 30 years. Yeah, at least 30 years.
Rich Roller and Steve Walton are sitting in the tenor section.
ROLLER: I don’t think out of the 30 years I’ve ever nailed this thing. I think that’s part of the fun of it.”
WALTON (laughing): Maybe I should look for different tenors to sit next to.
AUDIO: ORCHESTRA “FOR UNTO US A CHILD IS BORN.”
Messiah is about three hours long, and the music isn’t exactly easy. Newbies muddle along, trying to stick to their line of music and come in at the right place. But since about 80 percent of the attendees have done this before, the overall sound is actually pretty good.
LYRIC: “FOR UNTO US A CHILD IS BORN. UNTO US A SON IS GIVEN.”
The lyrics for Messiah come straight from the Bible. There are verses from Zechariah, Haggai, and the four gospels. A lot comes from Isaiah.
LYRIC: “AND THE GOVERNMENT SHALL BE UPON HIS SHOULDERS. AND THE GOVERNMENT SHALL BE UPON HIS SHOULDERS. AND HIS NAME SHALL BE CALLED WONDERFUL COUNSELOR, THE MIGHTY GOD, THE EVERLASTING FATHER, THE PRINCE OF PEACE.”
The first segment focuses on Old Testament prophecies predicting Christ’s birth, the second covers his death and resurrection, and the third is about his second coming.
LYRIC: “AND ALL FLESH SHALL SEE IT. AND THE GLORY OF THE LORD SHALL BE REVEALED.”
Stanley Sperber is this evening’s conductor. He’s led Chicago’s “Do-It-Yourself Messiah” each year since 19-97.
SPERBER: There’s so much brotherhood and sisterhood in that room—Jews, Christians, Muslims, white, black, everything, you name it. Everyone’s there and everyone’s having a great time. It puts people in a spiritual mood and it really doesn’t make a difference what their background is and where they come from.
Sperber, a secular Jew, acknowledges the work is uniquely Christian. But he believes the appeal of the oratorio is much broader.
SPERBER: It’s true it has a wonderful description of Jesus and the suffering he went through, but…I think it’s not something that is limited to Christians; it’s a universal piece. There are many universal messages in the Messiah…outside of the purely religious one.
When pressed for an example of these “universal messages,” he doesn’t really have an answer. So I start asking around. Most people seem to know they’re singing Scripture—at least in theory. But none of them seem to have thought much about it.
ROBSON: Well…I think it’s sort of like—well I just don’t know about everything…
Ally Robson comes every year with her grandma. She loves Messiah because it’s a great piece of music. But she doesn’t think the lyrics have much significance.
ROBSON: …I think it’s like a great historical—it’s all happened in history and everybody is kind of like reflecting on…maybe what it’s all about—I don’t know.
Katy and Jan Hibbelns are a mother-daughter duo. They say the words do matter, but mostly it’s just—
HIBBELNS: A massive sing-along of classical music.
There are some here this evening who do understand what they’re singing.
ILER: One of the things I love is just to sit and to meditate on the Scripture.
Donna Iler has been coming for years. For her, singing Messiah is a reminder of what God has done.
ILER: It just reminds me how God placed the information there and so many things that had to be fulfilled to show that this is His Son, and… He did exactly what He said He was going to do. And how amazing that is that He gave us all these hints and pictures, and then He fulfilled them all.
Iler wishes that more people knew that story. But even though many attendees don’t actively think about the words they’re singing, Messiah still impacts them.
Katy Hibbelns isn’t religious, but she says that the music “goes into the rest of her life.”
HIBBELNS: When I hear the words in other contexts, I think of the melody.
She’ll walk away humming scripture.
For some, Messiah is just a beautiful piece of music. For others, it’s a tiny taste of heaven.
Standing here in the middle of 1,500 people singing, “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth,” it’s not hard to believe.
LYRIC: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. AND HE SHALL REIGN FOREVER AND EVER. FOREVER AND EVER, FOREVER AND EVER, HALLELUJAH, HALLELUJAH, HALLELUJAH, HALLELUJAH. HALLELUJAH.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Anna Johansen reporting from Chicago, Illinois.