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Messiah, The - A Christmas Singing Tradition: Home

Written by Heather Dent

Christmas Tradition of Singing The Messiah

The Messiah is a world renowned oratorio written by George Fredric Handel. It was first presented in Ireland in 1742. This popular oratorio was sung annually in Berea during Christmas time as a tradition for over half a century. Berea began singing pieces of Handel’s Messiah in 1884. However, they never sang more than a few choruses and those choruses were interrupted with responsive readings from the scriptures and hymns, in which the audience was encouraged to participate. It was not until 1899 that Berea performed the entire score. It was presented during an Easter concert under the direction of Ira Penniman and William W. Weaver.

The production of The Messiah did not officially become an annual tradition until 1908 under the direction of Professor Ralph Rigby. The Harmonia Society performed it in the spring of that year, and the program announced it as the “first annual rendition of Handel’s Messiah.The following fall, Mr. Rigby announced the Harmonia Society would perform it again during Christmas time saying, “It is our intention to give this work once each year hereafter as a Christmas event.” Upon this declaration the membership of the Harmonia Society increased thirty percent.

In 1931 Berea merged with Eastern Kentucky Teachers College to create a joint annual presentation of The Messiah. This union continued for 34 years until 1965 when both schools’ Music Departments became self-sufficient to present their own independent performances each year, and mutual assistance was no longer necessary.

After Ralph Rigby retired, Rolf Hovey became the new Music Department head and director of the Harmonia Society. Dr. Hovey encouraged all students who were interested to try out for the group regardless of whether or not they were familiar with the oratorio. He once said, “I guarantee that those who sing this magnificent music can find no better way of investing an hour and 20 minutes each week than in learning music from this world-famous masterpiece.

The growing reputation of Harmonia Society and Hovey’s persistent use of advertisement caused interest in The Messiah to grow rapidly. In 1955, Berea Citizen reported The Messiah as being a “sell out” for years and reported that ten percent of the student body performed in The Messiah that year. Such numbers caused Dr. Hovey to comment, “I was impressed by the number of students learning the Messiah” for the first time. He, who participates, is the one who really appreciates.” Throughout the history of Berea’s performances of The Messiah there was a significant growth in members of the choir. The numbers grew from as few as 46 voices to 190 voices.

Additional Resources

  • Berea College Vertical File, Special Collections and Archives RG 9 – Faculty and Staff – Ralph Rigby – Berea College Archives
  • RG – News Bureau Files – Messiah Performances – Berea College Archives

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