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 own 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.
If Handel’s father had had his way, the Hallelujah Chorus would never have been written. His father was a “surgeon-barber”–a no-nonsense, practical man who was determined to send his son to law school. Even though young Handel showed extraordinary musical talent, his father refused for several years to permit him to take lessons.
George Frederic was born in 1685, a contemporary of Bach, a fellow German, and raised a fellow Lutheran, yet they were never to meet. Though numerous books on the lives of the great composers begin with Bach, Handel, in fact, was born several weeks earlier, on February 23, 1685. When the boys were eight or nine years old, a duke heard him play an organ postlude following a worship service. Handel’s father was summarily requested to provide formal music training for the boy. By the time Handel had turned twelve, he had written his composition and was so proficient with the organ that he substituted on occasion for his own teacher.
He 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-living courts. In Rome, he wrote The Resurrection, an oratorio in which religious themes emerged for the first time in Handel’s music. While in Italy, he met some of the musicians of his day, most notably Domenic Scarlatti.
In 1712, after a short stay in the court of Hanover, he moved to England, where he lived for the rest of his life. There he Anglicized his name from its original spelling, Georg Friedrich. He dropped the diereses originally on the “a” of his surname, and this led to various spellings by different publishers Haendel, Hendel, and so on.
Handel was the sort of individual who stood out in a crowd. He was large-boned and loud and often wore an enormous white wig with curls cascading to his shoulders. When he spoke, his English was replete with colorful snatches of German, French, and Italian.
Although Handel wrote his greatest music in England, he suffered personal setbacks there as well. Falling in and out of favor with changing monarchs, competing with established English composers, and dealing with fickle, hard-to-please audiences left him confronting bankruptcy more than once.
Yet Handel retained his sense of humor through virtually any hardship. Once, just as an oratorio of his was about to begin, several of his friends gathered to console him about the extremely sparse audience attracted to the performance. “Never mind,” Handel joked to his friends. “The music will sound the better due to the acoustics of the nearly empty hall!
Like his fellow composer Bach, Handel was also renowned as a virtuoso organist. One Sunday, after attending a worship service at a country church, Handel asked the organist if he could play a postlude. As the congregation was leaving the church, Handel played with such expertise that the people reclaimed there seats and refused to leave. The regular organist stopped him, and said that he had better not play the postlude after all if the people were ever to go home.
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 relentless 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 Dublin charity to compose work for a benefit performance.
Handel set to work composing on August 22, in his little house on Brook Street in London. He grew 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.
Sir Newman Flower, one of Handel’s many biographers, summed up the consensus of history: Considering the immensity of the world, and the short time involved, it will remain, perhaps forever, the greatest feat in the whole history of music composition.” Handel’s title for the commissioned work was simply, Messiah.
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 Paul, saying “whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote it I know not.”
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 [renown] 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 Hallelujah Chorus he wept like a child, and exclaimed [of Christ], “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 handle was a major benefactor. The thousands of pounds that Handel’s performances of Messiahs 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 man kind 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 work. Following the first London performance of Messiah, Lord Kinnoul congratulated Handel on the excellent
“Entertainment.” Handel replied, “My lord, I should be sorry that I only entertained them. I wish to make them better.”
The religious beliefs of the composer 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 and 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 where above reproach. At church he was often on his knees, expressing by his looks and gesticulations the utmost fervor of devotion.
Yet the very persistence that kept Handel going through the worst of times made him obstinate and temperamental when he encountered opposition. A conformed bachelor, Handel was reputed to swear in several languages when moved to wrath (usually by singers). At the same time, he was equally quick to admit his own fault and apologize.
Handel was known for his modest and strait forward opinion of himself and his talent. When a friend unwittingly commented on the dreariness of some music he had heard at the Vauxhall gardens, Handel rejoined, “You are right, sir, it is pretty poor stuff. I thought so myself when I wrote it.”
His friend Sir John Hawkins recorded that Handel “Through out this life manifested a deep sense of religion. In conversations he would frequently declare the pleasure 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 who’s Holy Will I submit myself with Christian submissions.”
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 relentless optimist whose faith in God sustained him through every difficulty. Raised as 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 three thousand 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 than my Redeemer liveth.”
(Some Thoughts on Handel: Resilience)
When reviewing the lives of great figures in history, it is tempting to focus only on the results of their lives, glossing over the periods between the masterpieces they produced. Because “the end of the story” is a matter of record, it may be difficult to appreciate the struggles that threatened to make the story far shorter. In Handel’s case especially, had he not possessed an amazing ability to bounce back from repeated disaster, such well-loved works as Messiah and the Royal Fireworks Music would have never been written.
How often Handel must have felt like giving up! What fits of depression his many failures would have caused an average composer. To a man who knew he had but one great talent, seeing that talent go unrewarded so often must have been profoundly perplexing. And to see other London composers, whom he knew to have less genius, enjoying the success that eluded him for so many years—must have driven Handel to extreme exasperation. Yet through all the frustrating years before his final successes, Handel simply refused to quit.
And, as if blows inflicted by his competitors were not painful enough, Handel suffered from an onslaught of attacks within his own camp. For a devoted Christian to have come under censure by the principal church of his time must have been bitterly distressing. Even after Messiah was becoming well known, as great a religious figure as John Newton (composer of the hymn “Amazing Grace”), preached every Sunday for over a year against the “secular” performances of this biblical oratorio. Yet Handel did not respond by counterattacking his Anglican brothers. Though he remained a Lutheran, he “would often speak of it as one of the great felicities of his life that he was settled in a country where no man suffers any molestation or inconvenience on account of his religious principles.”
Handel refused to be deterred by setbacks, attacks, illnesses, or even severe financial woes. It is a tribute to the faith and optimism Handel possessed, relying on God as he worked to overcome significant obstacles and to create music that is universally cherished today.
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