The story behind Handel’s Messiah
December 26, 2006 § 4 Comments
For the dinner table, family devotions, and discussions and applications in fellowship.
This edition: The Miracle of Messiah / a story compiled from several accounts
As millions the world over are reminded, if only for a moment, about the miracle of “God with us” which Christians declare happened some two-thousand years ago, it is also worth remembering that there was once a man who believed heartily in that story and who decided to set it to music. The results were astounding. He seemed like an ordinary enough man. He did not care much for vanity and the inaccessible heights of wealth and power that were deeply intertwined with the religious institutions of his day. He was frequently found on his knees. He was not famous, he was not rich. But he could work — oh, could he work — and he could fast, and wait until God answered, and God had given him one great gift; one great skill.
A servant, intent on trying to serve a meal to his eccentric employer who had not been eating, opened the door of this man’s room one day and found tears streaming down his face. Turning to the servant, the man cried, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself!” What had just happened would go down in history as one of the most powerful compositions of all time, the Hallelujah Chorus in Georg Friedrich Handel’s work, Messiah. But what happened that day was only a taste of what would soon follow. Rarely, if ever, has the work of a believer so affected the public attitude or resulted in such an outpouring of goodwill, the public’s sacrifice of material things rather than their accumulation, inestimable relief to the poor, and hearts and minds brought face to face with “the great God Himself.”
J.S. Bach, a fellow composer of Handel’s, had focused much on the organs of churches and commercial and ecclesiastical success. Handel championed excellence, but he wanted to take the message of the scriptures to the streets. Living in England at the time, he wrote biblical episodes, such as Esther and Israel in Egypt, specifically with the intent that they would be heard in secular theaters rather than in the great halls of benefactors, or those of the Church of England. The Anglicans in power at the time detested such priorities and attacked Handel for them, but he refused to counterattack. And even though doing this also meant little or no profit from his endeavors, he persisted. By 1741, he was facing the very real possibility of debtor’s prison. Right about then, he received a commission from a charity in Dublin, Ireland, asking that he compose a work for a benefit performance. The rest, as they say, is history.
On April 13, 1742, the “charitable benefit” became the premiere of Messiah. In its first performance alone, the intake for charity set 142 men free from debtor’s prison! One year later, it was brought to London. The King of England attended the first night. When the notes of the Hallelujah Chorus began to ring out, the king rose and stood and, following royal protocol, the entire audience stood in response with him. Thus began a tradition which has lasted until today, over 250 years later. By all accounts, when the great composer Haydn first heard Messiah, he wept like a child and declared of this street-composer, Handel, “He is the master of us all!”
Handel personally conducted more than thirty performances of Messiah through which he raised thousands of British pounds for relief on the streets. One writer of the time summed up the result this way, “Messiah has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and fostered the orphan.” Another wrote, “Perhaps no other work has so largely contributed to the relief of human suffering.” Handel protested to Lord Kinnoul that he hoped that his purpose was not entertainment but to make his listeners better men. Still another writer of that era concluded that Messiah “has probably done more to convince thousands of mankind that there is a God about us than all the theological works ever written.”
Handel passed from this life the day before Resurrection Sunday, 1759.