Handel’s Messiah: Masterpiece

As one story goes, he walked the streets of London with a heavy heart, having been barren of inspiration for too long. As he passed a Cathedral he cried out, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me,” echoing the words of Christ on the cross as he bore the wrath of God’s judgment for the sins of the world.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), born in Germany, lived and worked most of his life in London. Like many of the world’s great artists he flourished in childhood becoming a master musician and popular composer of mainly operas and oratorios. Driven by his creativity, his production was enormous and earned him large sums of money. His generosity, even in the worst of times, was as big as his music production, giving money to many charities and individuals in need.

Tireless work took a toll on his health and he suffered several strokes from which he seemed to recover fairly well. The genre of opera was falling out of favor with its huge expense of staging, costumes, musicians and high priced soloists. In those days many musicians not only wrote their own music, but also financed the entire production with all of the expenses that would hopefully draw in people and make money. For the best, it could be very lucrative. On the other hand, oratorios were similar to operas but without all the production expense and were becoming popular. Current counterparts would be the musical (opera) and the church cantata (oratorio).

As his health and fortunes begin to fail, he found himself traveling through a dry land of creativity. Returning home from his walk he discovered a libretto (usually a script) left by his friend Charles Jennens with whom he collaborated with previously. It was simply titled “Messiah” and consisted of Scripture verses from the Old and New Testaments chronicling God’s soteriological revelation of Christ from Prophecy to Revelation. Handel was immediately struck by the Word of God and began hearing music bursting forth from his heart and mind.

Handel wrote the entire work in some 24 days seemingly day and night while most of the food delivered by his waiter remained untouched. In one instance when entering the composer’s room, Handel stood with tears streaming down his face and exclaimed, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” He had just finished the “Hallelujah Chorus,” the most famous piece of “Messiah” and heralded yearly for centuries as the most popular and inspired work in the history of Christian music.

In our part of the state, we are not often visited by the larger music groups and productions reserved usually for larger cities. On this occasion, however, we were privileged to attend a presentation of Messiah with an out-of-town symphony orchestra joined by the university and community choral groups and imported soloists. Truly a once in a lifetime event. If that wasn’t enough, the Messiah was being performed in its entirety. Yes, two and one-half hours of maybe the greatest work of Western Civilization’s Christian music, being directed by a gifted university professor of growing recognition.

I had a great time following along with the Biblical texts as the soloists, chorus and musicians gave a wonderful performance. Handel used word painting masterfully setting moods with the instruments that matched the text meaning. Those not familiar with “word painting” can understand it well by the musical treatment in the song by Garth Brooks, “Friends in low places.” Notice the pitch on the word “low.” The musical mood created toward the end with the text “Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection” (I Cor. 15:51-52) is startling. Similar musical language throughout revealed the genius and spiritual inspiration of Handel.

“A few days before Handel died, he expressed his desire to die on Good Friday, ‘in the hopes of meeting his good God, his sweet Lord and Savior, on the day of his Resurrection.’ He lived until the morning of Good Saturday, April 14, 1759. His death came only eight days after his final performance, at which he had conducted his masterpiece, Messiah (Glimpses, 2007)”

A statue at his burial place in Westminster Abbey, depicts him holding the manuscript for the solo opening of part three, “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” A fitting tribute to a man whose enormous talent, given by God, has blessed centuries of people who are awed by the powerful witness written for his Messiah.

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Thank you for passing down a love for this music to Mom. She passed it into us and we were listening to the Messiah just this morning in the record player. ??????

  2. Without realizing it, the kids are taking in all they hear, and from now on they will be recording it all on their “hard drive,” so to speak. Unfortunately I don’t think the majority of people learn to appreciate many forms of music, but thankfully you did!

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