George Frideric Handel
- Christianity Today Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2001 11 Nov
In 1741 opera composer George Frideric Handel was a failure. Bankrupted and in physical pain, it seemed his days of writing music were over. But when his friend Charles Jennens brought him a biblical text that needed orchestration, Handel was inspired. The man called "the German nincompoop" by many Englishmen would produce the greatest work of his life.
Unlike his fellow countryman and contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach, Handel, born in 1685, didn't grow up in a musical family. His father, a "surgeon-barber," decided Handel would be a lawyer. He did eventually study law, but after persuading his father to allow him to take music lessons, Handel found his true vocation. By age 12, Handel was substituting for his organ teacher and had written his first composition.
After his father's death, Handel pursued music in Germany and Italy before landing a job in England as composer for the Chapel Royal. There he indulged in his passion?writing operas. Handel's timing couldn't be worse. The musical form was falling out of fashion in England. The crowds were dwindling at the concert halls where his operas were being performed. Handel jokingly said to his worried friends that an empty venue has better acoustics.
Blasphemy on stage
In 1737 Handel's opera company went bankrupt, and he suffered a mild stroke. To make matters worse, his latest musical fascination?the oratorio (a composition for orchestra and voices telling a sacred story without costumes, scenery, or dramatic action)?was his most controversial yet. His first oratorio, Esther, the first of its kind in English, outraged the church. A Bible story was being told by common mummers, and even worse, the words of God were being spoken in the theater!
The bishop of London prohibited the oratorio from being performed. Handel proceeded anyway, and the royal family attended. The production was a success?but the church still protested.
In 1739 advertisements for Israel in Egypt were torn down by devout Christians, who also disrupted its performances. Handel, a devout Lutheran, was incensed, saying that he knew the Bible as well as any bishop. Financially, it did him little good. He was being threatened with debtor's prison.
Heaven's glory in music
At his lowest point, Handel was visited by his Anglican friend Charles Jennens. Jennens had written a libretto about the life of Christ and the work of redemption to challenge the deists. The text was completely taken from the Bible. Would Handel compose the music? The musician agreed, estimating it would take a year to complete.
But when a group of Dublin charities offered Handel a generous commission to compose a new work for a benefit performance to free men from debtor's prison, Handel didn't waste time. On August 22, 1741, he began composing Messiah, completing 260 pages in less than a month. When he finished writing what would become known as the Hallelujah Chorus, he said, "I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself."
Once again controversy surrounded the performance, but the benefit was a sensation. An over-capacity crowd of 700 people attended, raising enough money to release 142 men from prison. One reviewer called it "the most finished piece of music" ever written.
It took nearly a year for the oratorio, advertised as "A New Sacred Oratorio," to be presented in England. As the opening notes of the Hallelujah Chorus were played, the king stood to his feet. Some historians have suggested the gesture was not out of reverence but because he was partially deaf and mistook it for the national anthem. Whatever the truth, the tradition of standing for the Hallelujah Chorus has continued to this day.
Until his death in 1759, Handel conducted 30 performances of Messiah (none at Christmastime, for Handel considered it a Lenten piece), only one of which was in a church.
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