The Messiah

"He would frequently declare the pleasure he felt in setting the Scriptures to music, and how contemplating the many sublime passages in the Psalms had contributed to his edification."
- Sir John Hawkins on George Frideric Handel

By 1741 George Frideric Handel was a failure. Bankrupted, in great physical pain, and the victim of plots to sabotage his career, the once-great opera composer scheduled a "farewell" appearance in London on April. To the London elite, it looked like this "German nincompoop," as he was once called, was through. That summer, however, he composed Messiah, which not only brought him back into the spotlight, but is still deemed by some to be "an epitome of Christian faith."

Opposition begins

Unlike Handel's fellow countryman and contemporary Johann Bach (the two were born the same year but never met), Handel never had a musical family. George's father was a practical "surgeon-barber" who discouraged his son's musical career at every turn. His son was to be a lawyer. Indeed, George studied law until 1703, even though his father (who finally allowed his son to take music lessons at age 9) died when he was 11. By age 12, Handel was substituting for his organ teacher and had written his first composition.

After musical studies in Germany and Italy, Handel moved to England, where he stayed for the rest of his life and became a composer for the Chapel Royal. His greatest passion was for the opera—an ill-timed passion, for the form was quickly falling out of fashion in England. The most popular work was the 1728 Beggar's Opera, which satirized the form itself. Still, Handel continued to pen operas into the 1740s, losing more and more money.

Handel's friends expressed concern that the concert hall was nearly empty. Never mind, he joked, an empty venue would mean great acoustics.

He didn't joke for long. In 1737 Handel's opera company went bankrupt, and he suffered what seems to be a mild stroke. But 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 (actually, the first of its kind in English), Esther, was met with outrage by the church. A Bible story was being told by "common mummers," and even worse, the words of God were being spoken in the theater!

"What are we coming to when the will of Satan is imposed upon us in this fashion?" cried one minister. The bishop of London apparently agreed and prohibited the oratorio from being performed. When Handel proceeded anyway, and the royal family attended, it was met with success—but the church was still angry.

In 1739 advertisements for Israel in Egypt were torn down by devout Christians, who also disrupted its performances. All of this angered the devoutly Lutheran Handel. As his friend Sir John Hawkins commented, "Throughout his life, [he] manifested a deep sense of religion. In conversation he would frequently declare the pleasure he felt in setting the Scriptures to music, and how contemplating the many sublime passages in the Psalms had contributed to his edification."

Though irritated—and Handel was often irritated, earning a reputation for prolific cursing in five languages—he dismissed the Puritans' concerns. "I have read my Bible very well," he said, "and will choose for myself." In fact, Handel maintained that he knew the Bible as well as any bishop. Financially, however, it did him little good. Once the composer for royalty, he was now threatened with debtor's prison.

Delivered by Messiah

Deeply depressed, Handel was visited by his friend Charles Jennens. The devout Anglican had written a libretto about the life of Christ and the work of redemption, with the text completely taken from the Bible. A fussy perfectionist, Jennens had written it to challenge the deists who denied the divinity of Jesus. Would Handel compose the music for it? he asked. Handel answered that he would, and estimated its completion in a year.

Soon thereafter, a group of Dublin charities approached Handel to compose a work for a benefit performance. The money raised would help free men from debtor's prison, and Handel would receive a generous commission. Now with a text and a motivation, Handel began composing Messiah on August 22, 1741. Within six days, Part One was finished. In nine more, Part Two. Six more and Part Three was done. It took him only an additional two days to finish the orchestration. Handel composed like a man obsessed. He rarely left his room and rarely touched his meals. But in 24 days, he had composed 260 pages - an immense physical feat.

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."

Though the performance of the piece again caused controversy (Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver's Travels and then the dean of Saint Patrick's Cathedral, was outraged and initially refused to allow his musicians to participate), the premiere on April 13, 1742, at the Fishamble Street Music Hall was a sensation. An overcapacity crowd of 700 people attended, raising 400 pounds to release 142 men from prison. (The demand for tickets was so great that men were asked not to wear their swords and women asked not to wear hoops in their skirts, allowing 100 extra people into the audience. Such hoops immediately fell out of fashion for concerts.)

Until his death, Handel conducted 30 performances of Messiah (none at Christmastime, for Handel deemed it a Lenten piece), only one of which was in a church, Bristol Cathedral. In that audience sat John Wesley. "I doubt if that congregation was ever so serious at a sermon as they were during this performance," he remarked.

The Power of Music

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."

The composer's own assessment, more than any other, may best capture his personal aspirations for his well-loved work. Following the first London performance of Messiah, Lord Kinnoul congratulated Handel on the excellent entertainment. Handel replied, "My Lord, I should be sorry if I only entertain them. I wish to make them better."

The religious beliefs of the composer who created the world's most popular religious masterpiece have puzzled many musicologists. In an era when Christian musicians typically worked for local churches, this composer of secular opera, chamber, and orchestral music did not fit the usual pattern. Yet he was a devout follower of Christ and widely known for his concern for others. Handel's morals were above reproach. At church he was often seen on his knees, expressing by his looks and gesticulations the utmost fervor of devotion.

His friend Sir John Hawkins recorded that Handel "throughout his life manifested a deep sense of religion. In conversation he would frequently declare the pleasure he felt in setting the Scriptures to music, and how contemplating the many sublime passages in the Psalms had contributed to his edification." In one of his few surviving letters, Handel comforts his brother-in-law on the death of Handel's mother: "It pleased the Almighty, to whose great Holy Will I submit myself with Christian submission."

And he surely needed such Christian grace to endure blows inflicted by his competitors. But there was also an onslaught of attacks from within his own camp. Even after Messiah was becoming well-known, as great a religious figure as John Newton, composer of the hymn "Amazing Grace," preached often against the "secular" performances of this biblical oratorio.

Known universally for his generosity and concern for those who suffered, Handel donated freely to charities even in times when he faced personal financial ruin. He was a relentless optimist whose faith in God sustained him through every difficulty. Raised a sincere Lutheran, he harbored no sectarian animosities and steered clear of denominational disagreements. Once, defending himself before a quarrelsome archbishop, Handel simply replied "I have read my Bible very well and will choose for myself."

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.

His close friend James Smyth wrote, "He died as he lived--a good Christian, with a true sense of his duty to God and to man, and in perfect charity with all the world." Handel was buried in Westminster Abbey, with over 3,000 in attendance at his funeral. A statue erected there shows him holding the manuscript for the solo that opens Part Three of Messiah, "I know that my Redeemer liveth."

The Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers by Patrick Cavanaugh
George Frideric Handel - Composer of Messiah,
Wikipedia article on George Frideric Handel