Is there a soul so jaded that it cannot be stirred by the mighty “Hallelujah Chorus”? I don’t think so. But the story behind the composition of this majestic work, and the rest of Handel’s Messiah, is a compelling story.
Living in 18th-century London, Handel was mainly a composer of operas — dozens of them. His productions were popular, and they found favor with audiences. But he had enemies. He was a foreigner, born in Germany, and rivals detested his style of opera. Personally, he wasn’t very likable, either. He was a large, awkward man — rough and hot-tempered — often called “The Great Bear.”
When his operas began to fail, along with his health, Handel sank into bankruptcy and despair, believing his career was over. But he was invited to Ireland in 1741 to direct one of his works at a charity performance. For this occasion, he planned to write a new oratorio. A deeply religious man, he turned away from the human foibles he had portrayed in the operas.
Choosing text and themes from Scripture, he composed with super-human zeal and energy. Those who witnessed it thought he was mad or under a spell. A servant reported that Handel seldom ate or slept. He worked with such frenzy that his fingers could no longer hold the pen.
Thus, in the grip of divine inspiration, he created one of the world’s great masterworks — Part I in six days, Part II in nine days, and Part III in six days. The orchestration took him only a few more days. The finished product was two-and-a-half hours of the world’s most magnificent music, all composed in less than twenty-five days.
When he finished, he sobbed: “I think that I did see all heaven before me, and the great God Himself!”
At the premiere in Dublin, in 1742, the Messiah was pronounced a masterpiece. It recounts the prophecies of Christ and his triumphant birth, with dramatic passages like, “For unto us a child is born . . . and the government shall be upon His shoulders.” And “His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God . . . the Prince of Peace.” All, of course, straight from Scripture.
At the London premiere, King George was so moved by the “Hallelujah Chorus” that he spontaneously rose from his seat, and the entire audience followed his example. For the past 250 fifty years, audiences have continued to do the same. Oh the power of great music which lifts the soul heavenward!
After his success, Handel continued to write religious music. Beethoven said: “To him I bend the knee, for Handel was the greatest, ablest composer that ever lived.”
When his eyesight began to fail, Handel underwent surgery, but with the tragic results: total blindness. Nonetheless, he continued to perform for eight years, until, at age 74, he collapsed while conducting a performance of Messiah. He was put to bed saying, “I should like to die on Good Friday.” Missing it by a few hours, he died on Saturday, April 14th, 1759, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. His grave is marked by a statue of Handel at his table, with the score of Messiah opened to the page, “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.”
Like King George, we still rise when we hear that great triumphal chorus and affirm, “Hallelujah to our newborn King.”
For further reading:
Ewen, David. Great Composers: 1300 to 1900. New York: H. W. Wilson & Co., 1966.
Sloninsky, Nicholas. Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. New York: Schirmer Books, 1992.
Swafford, Jan. Vintage Guide to Classical Music. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
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