from Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers by Patrick Kavanaugh
This month in honor of the season, we would like to feature Handel’s Messiah, since most of us will play this at some point during the season. It is inspirational to remember how this great piece came to be written.
In a small London house on Brook Street, a servant sighs with resignation as he arranges a tray full of food he assumes will not be eaten. For more than a week, he has faithfully continued to wait on his employer, an eccentric composer, who spends hour after hour isolated in his room.
Morning, noon, and evening the servant delivers appealing meals to the composer and returns later to find the bowls and platters largely untouched.
Once again, he steels himself to go through the same routine, muttering under his breath about how oddly temperamental musicians can be. As he swings open the door to the composer’s room, the servant stops in his tracks.
The startled composer, tears streaming down his face, turns to his servant and cries out, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” George Frederic Handel had just finished writing a movement that would take its place in history as the Hallelujah Chorus.
George Frederic was born in 1685, a contemporary of Bach, a fellow German, and raised a fellow Lutheran, yet they were never to meet. When the boys were eight or nine years old, a duke heard [Handel] play an organ postlude following a worship service. Handel’s father was summarily requested to provide formal music training for the boy. Handel became a violinist and composer for Hamburg Opera Theater, and then traveled to Italy, where he lived from 1706 to 1710 under the patronage of the music-loving courts.
Audiences for Handel’s compositions were unpredictable, and even the Church of England attacked him for what they considered his notorious practice of writing biblical dramas such as Ether and Israel in Egypt to be performed in secular theaters. His occasional commercial success soon met with financial disaster as rival opera companies competed for the ticket holders of London. He drove himself relentlessly to recover from one failure after another, and finally his health began to fail. By 1741 he was swimming in debt. It seemed certain he would land in debtor’s prison.
On April 8 of that year, he gave what he considered his farewell concert. Miserably discouraged, he felt forced to retire from public activities at the age of fifty-six. Then two unforeseen events converged to change his life. A wealthy friend, Charles Jensen, gave Handel a libretto based on the life of Christ, taken entirely from the Bible. He also received a commission from a Dublin charity to compose a work for a benefit performance.
Handel set to work composing on August 22 in his little house on Brook Street in London. He grew so absorbed in the work that he rarely left his room, hardly stopping to eat. Within six days part one was complete. In nine days more he had finished part two, and in another six, part three. The orchestration was completed in another two days. In all 260 pages of manuscript were filled in the remarkable short time of 24 days.
Handel never left his house for those three weeks. A friend who visited him as he composed found him sobbing with intense emotions. Later, as Handel groped for words to describe what he had experienced, he quoted St. Paul saying, "Whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote it I know not." Handel’s title for the commissioned work was simply, Messiah.
Messiah premiered on April 13, 1742 as a charitable benefit, raising 400 pounds and freeing 142 men from debtor’s prison. A year later, Handel staged it in London. Controversy emanating from the Church of England continued to plague Handel, yet the King of England attended the performance. As the first notes of the triumphant Hallelujah Chorus rang out, the king rose. Following the royal protocol, the entire audience stood too, initiating a tradition that has lasted more than two centuries.
Soon after this, Handel's notoriety began to increase dramatically, and his hard-won popularity remained constant until his death. By the end of his long life, Messiah was firmly established in the standard repertoire. Its influence on the other composers would be extraordinary. When Haydn later heard the Hallelujah Chorus he wept like a child, and exclaimed, "He is the master of us all!"
Handel personally conducted more than thirty performances of Messiah. Many of these concerts were benefits for the Foundling Hospital, of which Handel was a major benefactor. The thousands of pounds that Handel’s performances of Messiah raised for charity led one biographer to note, "Messiah has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan . . . more than any other single musical production in this or any country." Another wrote, "Perhaps the works of no other composer have so largely contributed to the relief of human suffering."
This work has had an uncanny spiritual impact on the lives of its listeners. One writer has stated that Messiah’s music and message "has probably done more to convince thousands of mankind that there is a God about us than all the theological works ever written."
A few days before Handel died, he expressed his desire to die on Good Friday, "in the hopes of meeting his good God, his sweet Lord and Savior, on the day of his Resurrection." He lived until the morning of Good Saturday, April 14, 1759. His death came only eight days after his final performance, at which he had conducted his masterpiece, Messiah.