The Birth of a Classic: Handel's 'Messiah'

Dr. Jerry Newcombe | Truth in Action Ministries | Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Birth of a Classic: Handel's 'Messiah'


One of my favorite “viral videos” that circulates around the world through the Internet takes place in a food court in a mall, presumably in Canada.

As people are eating and resting from the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping, suddenly a woman with a scarf on, who appears as an ordinary shopper, stands up and starts singing the "Hallelujah" chorus.

Clearly, this is a professional musician, who is soon joined in by another professional musician singing a different counterpart to the first soloist.

Then come other singers, one after another.

These are high quality musicians, and the whole act is well choreographed (and well shot too). What throws off the average viewer is the inconspicuous appearance of the singers. They fit right in with the frazzled shoppers.

This beautiful video, recorded in November 2010, has now had more than 35 million views.

I have heard that the opening lines of the "Hallelujah" chorus are the most recognizable piece of music the world over.

Of course, the "Hallelujah" chorus comes from Messiah,an oratorio (a sacred opera) by George Frederick Handel. The whole work is heavenly, and its highlight is the "Hallelujah" chorus. (Sometimes, I view “Messiah” as the zenith of Western civilization.)

I remember when the millennium change-over first hit on January 1, 2000 (although geeks like to say technically the first day of the millennium was January 1, 2001). In one far eastern country’s time zone after another, people the world over were celebrating the new year, the new century, the new millennium.

As I recall watching television of the celebration, the one song that I heard more than any other on that day, from various countries, was the "Hallelujah" chorus. It is universally loved.

Within months of the Berlin Wall coming down, Pepsi had a beautiful TV commercial celebrating the historic event. The piece they chose for that spot was the "Hallelujah" chorus. It worked perfectly.

There’s something deeply touching about that piece of music.

In his book, Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, Patrick Kavanaugh tells how Handel barely ate during the 24 days he wrote Messiah. At one point, the composer had tears in his eyes and cried out to his servant, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” He had just finished writing the "Hallelujah" chorus.

Amazingly, “Messiah” came at a time in his life when the 56-year-old Handel was facing bankruptcy and complete failure. He also had serious health problems. Also, some Church of England authorities were apparently critical of him and his work.

He seemed all washed up — with his future behind him. But writing “Messiah” proved to be the positive turning point in his life.

Handel was born in Germany. His father wanted him to study law, but George Frederick had an aptitude for music, which was clear early on. His mother bought him a harpsichord, which they kept up in the attic, secret from his father.

By the time he was 12, Handel wrote his first work.

Later, after his father’s death, he tried to study law, but he had no interest. So he studied music at the University of Halle.

In 1712, Handel moved to England and never returned to Germany.

While he experienced various successes through various compositions, including operas and sacred operas (oratorios, based on biblical themes), Kavanaugh notes that his failures threatened to overwhelm Handel: “His occasional commercial successes soon met with financial disaster. … He drove himself relentlessly 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.”

But 1741 proved to be the turning point. On the one hand, he gave what he feared was his farewell concert. On the other hand, a friend of his, Charles Jennens, gave him a libretto (a text) for a sacred work. It was essentially 73 Bible verses, focused on the Messiah, both from the Hebrew and the Christian Bible. Furthermore, a charity in Dublin paid him money to write something for a charity performance.

“Messiah” was the result, and it was very successful.

It’s interesting to note in this year, 2011, the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, that Handel’s work was impacted by that literary masterpiece. Every word of “Messiah” comes from that book.

Oxford professor Alister E. McGrath wrote, “Without the King James Bible, there would have been no Paradise Lost, no Pilgrim’s Progress, no Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ no Negro spirituals, and no Gettysburg Address. These, and innumerable other works were inspired by the language of this Bible.”

Charles Jennens’ role in this masterpiece is often lost, even on fans of Messiah. He is the one who carefully gleaned through the King James Bible and assembled the verses about the Christ that Handel so brilliantly set to music.

I count that 42 of the verses come from the Old Testament, including many passages from the Psalms and Isaiah. Thirty-one come from the New Testament.

“Messiah” was first performed in Dublin in 1742. It was a benefit concert for charity. According to one source, proceeds freed 142 men from debtors’ prison.

A year later, King George II was present at the first performance of “Messiah” in London. Is it said that the monarch fell asleep, and at the opening of the "Hallelujah" chorus, he rose to his feet, thinking it was his cue. Whatever the reason, he stood, and that has been the custom ever since — to stand during the "Hallelujah" chorus.

About 100 years later, even the aged Queen Victoria, who sat in her wheelchair as the chorus began, struggled to her feet as the choir sang, “King of kings and Lord of lords.” She said, “No way will I sit in the presence of the King of kings.”

So out of one genius’s pain and low point in his life came a work of beauty that continues to uplift millions of people the world over. Kavanaugh notes the secret of Handel’s success, “He was a relentless optimist whose faith in God sustained him through every difficulty.”

Jerry Newcombe is the senior producer and host of Truth that Transforms with D. James Kennedy (formerly The Coral Ridge Hour). He has also written or co-written 21 books, including Answers from the Founding Fathers, available from Truth in Action Ministries.

Publication date: December 21, 2011

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