The Man Behind 'The Messiah'
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“I want to die on Good Friday in the hope of rejoining the good God, my sweet Lord and Savior, on the day of His resurrection.”
~George Frideric Handel
The audience sat in reverent silence amid the pews. The orchestra had just played the last strains of the majestic yet somber overture. All were in hushed in anticipation as the conductor raised his baton, and the male vocalist stepped forth. As the orchestra began softly, he started to sing, “Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith your God...”
Like many people this past Christmas season, I attended a performance of The Messiah. In my family, Messiah is one of the tapes that we dig out every December, and usually listen to several times. Yet it has only been in the past few years that I’ve come to have a deeper love and appreciation of this great masterpiece. It is by far my favorite musical composition, and in my opinion, it is probably the greatest example of Christian music ever created.
While much attention and examination is often given to the Messiah itself, due consideration or praise is not always given to the musical genius from whose mind this masterpiece sprang–German composer George Frideric Handel.
It is amazing how often the pattern is repeated–that greatness and beauty are often forged out of great suffering and trial, rather than ease and comfort. Of course, we know from the Bible that this is the mysterious way in which God often works in the lives of His people. The apostle Paul was amazingly able to declare that “[W] e also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope”(Romans 5:3-4). The life of George Frideric Handel was one filled with hardship, yet it was through these times of difficulty that Handel was able to create one of the greatest musical masterpieces of all time.
In his early years young Handel showed natural musical ability, but his father, a surgeon-barber and a very practical and business-minded man, thought a career in music would leave his son a beggar. He wanted George to become a lawyer, so that he could be rich and famous. But more than anything, his son wanted to create music. Fortunately, God opened the door for young Handel when a powerful friend of his father’s, the Duke of Weisenfells, heard him play the organ, and immediately ordered his father to have him trained in music. The next few years were pure joy, as Handel learned to play the organ, harpsichord, oboe, and violin. Within a few years he was one of Germany’s feted musicians, at the tender age of twelve.
In that same year his father died, leaving he and his mother in financial difficulty. Five years later, he enrolled in the University of Halle, not knowing exactly where all the money to pay his tuition would come from. Ironically, it was during his time as a poor student that Handel learned that, despite his own poverty, there were many much more destitute than himself. One of his professors, August Hermann Francke, introduced Handel to his work with orphans. It was something Handel never forgot; for the rest of his life, whether in wealth or poverty, he always remembered the plight of orphans.
After graduating, he decided to go to Hamburg, Germany’s center of culture and art, in order to begin working with the ideas that were filling his mind. Here he worked for three years in opera and theater as a violinist and composer. Then from 1706-1710 he lived in music-rich Italy. Even during these very early years as a musician, he labored on two religious works, The Passion of St. John, which he wrote the music for, and The Resurrection, which he wrote while living in Rome.
When he returned to Germany in 1710, he was appointed to the position of Kapellmeister of Hanover. Yet he had barely begun with his new responsibilities when he requested a leave to go to London. It was here he settled down and stayed for the rest of life, excepting one short return to Germany. He quickly rose in popularity, and kept busy writing music.
In 1714, Queen Ann of England died, and Elector George Ludwig of Germany, none other than the man who had appointed Handel to the position of Kapellmeister, became King George I. This worried Handel greatly, for he feared the King was angry at him for leaving his position in Hanover. To win the monarch’s favor, he composed his now famous Water Music. The king was pleased, and Handel was relieved.
For the next twenty-seven years, Handel continued to write all kinds of music–operas, plays, symphonies, etc. He also began to perfect a new genre of music, the oratorio, which he would bring to flower in the Messiah. Yet these years of musical progress were filled with many, many difficulties. He suffered many attacks from ignorant critics and jealous colleagues. As a servant of nobility, he was subject to all the whims and conspiratorial attitudes of high society. Some of the projects he participated in came to utter financial ruin, and a few times his health failed him. And because Handel lived with such heart and gusto, all these highs and lows affected him greatly. There were moments when his friends thought he would go mad. Only his strong faith in God kept him going.
It was in 1741 that he was at such a low point, perhaps the lowest point of his life. Mounting debts and failing health forced him to think he should retire. He was preparing to give his farewell concert. Then something happened. A friend, Charles Jennings, gave him a libretto based upon the life of Christ. As he read the lyrics, which were all straight from the Bible, he was filled with inspiration. For twenty-four straight days in April he hardly ate or drank as he filled page after page with music. He was filled with such intensity of emotion as he wrote that the story has been frequently told that his servant found him weeping just after he finished the Hallelujah Chorus, exclaiming, “I did think I did see all heaven before me and the great God Himself.” Later, as he attempted to describe what he experienced as he wrote Messiah, he quoted the Apostle Paul, “Whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote it I know not.”
The first performance of the Messiah was, surprisingly, not in London. The reason being simply that Handel could not afford it. But then he received an invitation to perform a few charity concerts in Dublin, Ireland. So it was that on April 13, 1742, the Messiah was introduced to the world. Perhaps it is no small coincidence that the first rehearsal of the Messiah was on April 8, the traditional anniversary of the Saturday that Jesus was in the tomb, and its first performance was on the anniversary of Jesus’ first post-Resurrection appearances.
The Messiah was well received to say the least, and the next year Handel brought it to London. Despite vicious attacks by the Church of England against him for bringing “sacred” music into a “secular” music hall, Handel went forward, with much success.
The rest, as we say, is history. However, there is one more bit of wonderful history from the story of the Messiah that is worth noting. Most of the Messiah performances that Handel conducted during his lifetime were for charity, which has led one biographer to conclude: “Messiah has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan...more than any other single musical production in this or any country.”1 In a small way, God was pleased to use this musical masterpiece that honored his Son in order to continue the work of his Son. Such is the marvelous providence of God.
The Messiah continued to play a special part in Handel’s life until his very death. It was the last performance of his music that he conducted, even though at this point he was nearly blind. Shortly before he died, he expressed the wish I have quoted at the beginning of this article, that he could die on Good Friday. His wish was fulfilled, and he died on April 14, 1759. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. Above his grave was placed a statue of himself holding a manuscript. On it were written the words, “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” Indeed Handel did know, and he was already joining in a mighty Hallelujah Chorus with the angels and saints on high.
1. A.E. Bray, Handel, His Life, Personal and Professional (London: Ward & Company, 1857), p. 63.
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