Handel's Messiah

George Frideric Handel: A Brief History of the Man and the Early Days of Messiah

Childhood

George Frideric Handel was born on a cold February day in 1685, deep in the heart of Germany. His father was a prominent and successful barber-surgeon for the local duke and had determined early on that young George would study civil law.

But George was drawn to things more artistic, especially more musical. He was intrigued by instruments, the sounds they could make and the feelings they could evoke. His practical father intervened and forbade him from taking part in what he called “musical nonsense.”

That wasn’t about to stop the determined little youngster. By some unknown means, George was able to get a small clavichord and smuggle it to a tiny room at the top of the house. Then, at night, while the rest of the family was asleep, George would silently creep up to the room and play music, ever so quietly, late into the night. It was there that Handel discovered the magic of music.

It came as a complete surprise to family and friends at church one day when the eight-year-old climbed up on the organ bench and began to play the postlude. Everyone was shocked, especially his father, who had no idea his son was so gifted. Even so, his father sternly reminded son that his destiny was for something more practical than music.

Eventually, Handel enrolled in law school according to his father’s wishes, but the musical pull was too much. Soon, he left the confines of the classroom and headed out on the road. He traveled from city to city, learning what he could about each area’s musical styles and gifts before he finally settled in London in 1711 at age 26. There his operas and oratorios gained wide acceptance and Handel became an established part of English music and society circles.

Difficult Times

By the 1730s, British audiences had grown tired of operas sung in German or Italian and preferred comedic performances in English. This was good for Handel, who struggled to keep his creditors away, and led him to push himself to the limit by composing four operas within the same year.

As a result, Handel suffered a stroke that paralyzed his right arm. The doctor who treated him said, “We may save the man—but the musician is lost forever. It seems to me that his brain has been permanently injured.”

But Handel refused to give up and surprised everyone when he miraculously recovered his strength and declared, “I have come back from Hades.”

Messiah and Its Legacy

In 1741, swimming in debt and out of favor as a composer, Handel received a manuscript from Charles Jennens, a poet with whom he had worked previously. The manuscript detailed the life of Jesus Christ from His birth and ministry to His crucifixion and resurrection. On August 22, 56-year-old Handel sequestered himself in his London home and began to compose music to the biblical texts in the manuscript heralding the life of Jesus Christ. In just 23 days he completed a 260-page oratorio. He titled the massive work Messiah.

Handel told the sponsors of the premier performance of Messiah in Dublin, Ireland, on April 13, 1742, that the proceeds from the performance should be donated to prisoners, orphans and the sick. “I have myself been a very sick man, and am now cured,” he said. “I was prisoner, and have been set free.”

The performance received rave reviews and exceeded expectations, raising 400 pounds and freeing 142 men from debtors’ prison. The charity sponsors, hoping to squeeze in additional paying patrons, had asked the ladies to refrain from wearing hoops under their skirts and encouraged men to leave their swords at home.

Although the work was well received in Dublin, it was not a success in London, where audiences grappled with a sacred work being staged in theaters. In 1749, it was another charity performance to assist with the completion of London Foundling Hospital for abandoned infants and children that began a series of concerts that once again brought Messiah to public audiences with renewed appreciation. Easter-time performances of Messiah continued each year at the Foundling Hospital until the 1770s, and Handel conducted or attended every one of them until his death in 1759.

Some 40 years after Messiah’s premiere, English musicologist Charles Burney wrote, “This great work has been heard in all parts of the kingdom with increasing reverence and delight; it has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan and enriched succeeding managers of the oratorios, more than any single production in this or any other country.”