Calvin’s Oratorio Society Celebrates 100 years of Singing the “Messiah”


Naomi Vroegop

Heritage Hall created a display to inform patrons about the oratorio.

Calvin’s Oratorio Society is celebrating their 100th year of singing Handel’s “Messiah.” The performance has been a longstanding tradition here at Calvin and this year is no exception. The choir is made up of students, alumni and other community members who gather together once a week to practice under the direction of Calvin professor Sean Ivory. “Sean Ivory brings meaning to the Bible passages through the music. I really feel that the orchestra, soloists and chorus are bringing the message of our Savior to the audiences,” says soprano and alumnus Becky Scholten.

In celebration of this event, Oratorio Society had a dinner with former and current accompanists, the chorus and former and current conductors. At the dinner, Calvin Stapert, Professor Emeritus and author of “Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People,” spoke about the history of the Oratorio Society.

Stapert, talking about the history of the “Messiah” said, “It’s the story of a series of remarkable and unlikely events that began with a Catholic devotional movement in sixteenth-century Italy. It led to ‘Messiah,’ an oratorio written by an eighteenth-century German Lutheran composer,” who broke new ground in England’s non-existent oratorio tradition. He continued, “After its premier in Dublin, Ireland, it was performed every year and became the phenomenon with which we are all familiar.”  

The possibility for Oratorio Society to perform the “Messiah” started, according to Stapert, “in 1908 when two non-credit singing classes were added to the curriculum,” one of them being Oratorio Society. The “Messiah” is a large work and Oratorio Society did not perform the piece until 1919. As Oratorio Society grew, “in 1933 the 500-voice Calvin College Augmented Chorus and the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra performed the 14th annual ‘Messiah’ for more than 5000 listeners in the Civic Auditorium,” according to Stapert. The “Messiah” allows its musicians to preach the gospel through song, and that’s one reason why it has continued to be performed at Calvin, according to Stapert.

Scholten has been singing in Oratorio Society for 12 years, starting when she was a student. “I first joined Oratorio because I wanted to sing and be part of a choir but I didn’t have the time to commit to the student choirs on campus,” Scholten said. For her, singing in Oratorio Society has been an intergenerational experience: “I am the third generation to sing in the Oratorio Society.” In addition to enjoying both the music and the message of the Oratorio, Scholten joined the choir to spend time with her mother. She said, “When I joined again seven years ago, I surprised my mom, who had already been singing for several years, by auditioning and just showing up to the first rehearsal, and she was so thrilled.”

Heritage Hall currently has a display on the history of the “Messiah” that can be viewed on the second floor of Hekman Library. Oratorio Society will be performing Handel’s “Messiah” December 6 and 7 at 8 p.m. in the Covenant Fine Arts Center.