I love the stories behind why songs were written. You are able to go into the mind of the writer and get a sense of what he or she was going through at that time in their life. Take Handel’s “Messiah” for instance. When most people hear a clip from “Messiah” their usual responses are “boring, old, unrelatable, out of touch…etc.” I have been studying about the life of George F. Handel the past few months to get a sense of where he was in life when he wrote “Messiah”. While I appreciated the music itself before, it means so much more now that I know the story behind the man who wrote it.
George Frederick Handel was born in 1685. He was a musical genius at a young age, mastering many musical instruments such as the organ, clavichord, oboe, and violin. He also composed his first piece by the age of 12. He eventually moved to England and had great success with Italian Operas. After a few years a lot of the English people let it be known that they wanted music with words in English. So, Handel created the English Oratorio (a large-scale musical work based on a religious theme, performed without the use of costume, scenery or action). The English were not quick to accept this new genre of music. Once, before one of his oratorios, Handel’s friends went up to console him about the sparse attendance at the performance. “Never mind,” Handel joked to his friends. “The music will sound the better due to the improved acoustics of a very empty concert hall!” The church of England attacked him for writing these biblical dramas to be performed in secular theaters. Rival opera houses competed for his audience and by 1741 he was swimming in debt. It looked as though he might end up in debtor’s prison.
On April 8, 1741, Handel gave what he thought was his last performance at the age of 56. Then two things happened. 1) A friend of his, Charles Jennens, gave him a libretto (lyrics) based on the life of Christ. 2) The Charitable Musical Society from Ireland asked Handel to compose something for a benefit concert. Handel had found new life!
Handel started work on August 22 and barely left his room or ate anything during this time. One day, his waiter brought a tray of food into his room only to find a startled Handel, tears streaming down his face. Handel turned and said, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” He had just finished writing a movement we know as the “Hallelujah Chorus.” It only took Handel 24 days to complete “Messiah”. Later when he was asked what he felt while writing it he said “Whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote it I know not.” At its premiere performance on April 13, 1742, “Messiah” raised enough money to free 142 men from debtor’s prison.
“I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.”
Handel conducted more than thirty performances of Messiah. Many of these concerts were benefits for hospitals, orphans and men in debtor’s prison. 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 a great 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.”
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.”
As we prepare to present “Messiah” to our community this year, know that this is our heart, to present the life of Christ to a lost world that needs Him. Not for entertainment, but so He can make them better.