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Southwestern’s ‘Messiah’ witness spans 78 years, internat

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Before royalty and in cities where the King of Kings once walked, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has proclaimed the gospel through the lofty strains of George Frederick Handel’s “Messiah” as part of a rich 78-year tradition.
Since 1921, the seminary has performed the oratio more than 250 times, including the annual Christmas concerts on campus, which have become a highlight of the Yuletide season for Fort Worth, Texas, where the school is located.
Perhaps the most important venue the work had outside the United States, said distinguished professor emeritus of church music William J. Reynolds, occurred in the fall of 1973, when 200 students from Southwestern and two other Baptist schools performed the “Messiah” in the Middle East.
Robert Burton, a professor of conducting at Southwestern at the time, led the group to Jerusalem, Nazareth and Tel Aviv, Israel, and to Amman, Jordan, for a performance before the late King Hussein.
Reynolds recalled a tense moment for the group when Syrian MiG fighter jets forced the group’s charter plane to land, claiming it had not been cleared to fly through Syrian airspace. The plane was allowed to continue to Jerusalem after “offerings” were collected to satisfy the demands of Syrian officials, Reynolds said.
At the command performance before King Hussein, Col. James Irwin of the Apollo 15 lunar mission shared his testimony. The “Messiah” performance was well received by the audience, as was the gift to Hussein by Irwin of a picture of the astronaut on the moon.
Reynolds, whose uncle I.E. Reynolds began the seminary’s “Messiah” tradition, recounted the seminary’s relationship with the oratorio during Southwestern’s Founders Day chapel service March 10.
Southwestern’s first performances of Handel’s work was in 1921 in Fort Worth Hall, the only building on campus at the time. Because the seminary did not have enough music students to constitute a full chorus, the oratorio depicting Christ’s life was performed by a series of soloists.
Performances of the work began to carry the message of Christ into the community under conductor I. E. Reynolds, an evangelistic singer who might have heard a performance by one of the choral societies in Chicago while he was attending Moody Bible Institute.
The work, which dates from 1742, almost immediately became associated with the seminary and its efforts to reach out to the community after I.E. Reynolds’ arrival at the school, said William J. Reynolds.
It was the centerpiece of the selections played at the opening of Cowden Hall in 1926. Just a few years after the “Messiah” was first presented in its entirety by the seminary, selections were presented to the Kiwanis Club in 1936. During World War II, the seminary also reached out to military personnel at Camp Walters with a performance in 1942.
“[I.E.] Reynolds found ‘Messiah’ an effective outreach tool to the community, to churches, to service clubs, to military centers, sharing the biblical text and the classic music of Handel,” said the retired music professor. “It was the kind of great sacred music that can communicate at an aesthetic level as well as a devotional level and be an excellent entry way into the world.”
Southwestern and the “Messiah” first went global in the 1950s, when music missionaries Don and Violet Orr took the performance to Cali, Colombia, where a presentation packed the local opera house and helped open a new avenue for Baptist work there. The piece also brought similar results in South Korea and Brazil.
In recent years, Southwestern has joined with community members and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra to present the oratorio under the direction of professor of conducting C. David Keith, who replaced Burton after Burton retired in 1990.
After Reynolds’ recounting of Southwestern’s “Messiah” history, the oratorio chorus, led by Burton, performed the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s work, which prompted the audience of students, faculty, staff, trustees and former ‘Messiah’ soloists to rise to their feet, following the tradition established when King George II did so in 1743.

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  • Cory J. Hailey