Messiah —  From the Franklin campus to the United States
By Richard H. Harms, College Archivist, Heritage Hall

In October 1921, at the urging of college president John J. Hiemenga, the Choral Club, directed by Reese Veatch, began to practice Handel’s Messiah. At the time, parts of the oratorio, particularly the “Hallelujah Chorus,” had often been sung by local church groups, and as early as 1889 there was a short-lived effort to establish annual performances of the oratorio in Grand Rapids. But the Choral Club members were not familiar enough with the work to sing it during the 1921 Advent season; instead the first performance was March 22, 1921, in the chapel of the Administration Building of the Franklin campus.

Photo: The first performance of Messiah in 1933 in the just completed Grand Rapids Civic Auditorium.Messiah in Civic Auditorium

Eighty-one voices, the 12-piece Sherman Tuller Orchestra and a piano accompanist performed 20 movements from the first two parts of the oratorio, concluding with the “Hallelujah Chorus” (the complete work has 59 movements in three parts). Since the inaugural performance, it has been an annual Advent event. Until 1953, the “Hallelujah Chorus” continued to close the performance and, given the prayerful tone of the chorus, for a time the audience was asked to remain quiet for several minutes at these conclusions.

Seymour Swets took over the baton when he joined the faculty in 1923, and the productions moved to increasingly larger facilities. By 1932, there were three performances with three sets of soloists on Saturday and the following Monday and Tuesday. In 1933, negotiations with local groups that had their own annual Messiah productions led to the Calvin performance combined with the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra in the new Civic Auditorium.

The event was oversold, and a number had to be turned away with money refunded. As a result, two performances were presented the next year. Beginning in 1940, the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra no longer participated; instead individual musicians were hired for the orchestra. This changed in 1948 when the college orchestra—augmented with professional musicians under the direction of Henry Bruinsma—provided the instrumental music.

The popular production moved to a new audience in 1957 when Grand Rapids radio station WFUR (then AM) rebroadcast the performance on Christmas Day. WOOD radio, also in Grand Rapids, was the first to rebroadcast in the FM band in 1962, which allowed that station to rebroadcast in stereo the next year. Also in 1963, radio stations in Holland, Mich.; Wisconsin; and Kentucky rebroadcast the performance. By 1970, stations in eight states carried the program. Nine years later, the performance first was rebroadcast via Grand Rapids cable television and via satellite the next year. According to records in Heritage Hall, the 1983 performance was transmitted via 27 television and 20 radio stations.