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George Frideric Handel: An Oratorio for the Glory of the Lord

5 min

The eager crowd began to file into the music hall to take their seats. A new oratorio titled Messiah, composed by a German musician named George Frideric Handel, was to be performed publicly for the first time. The date was April 13, 1742, and the place was Dublin, Ireland. The proceeds from the ticket sales were to be donated by the composer to various charitable establishments in Ireland.

The event organizers had requested that gentlemen remove their swords and that ladies attend without hoops in their skirts. As expected, the music hall was soon filled to capacity. Seven hundred people filled every seat, and several hundred more stood outside in the streets to listen.

There was no ecstatic reception at the first performance, nor is there any evidence that the audience stood to the triumphant “Hallelujah Chorus.” Yet, a Dublin newspaper reported: “Words are wanting to express the exquisite delight it afforded to the admiring crowded audience. The sublime, the grand and tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestic, and moving words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished heart and ear.”

The roots of the greatest oratorio the world has ever known were anchored deeply in the soul of its composer, George Frideric Handel. Handel had struggled to find his niche in the musical world for many years before he at last discovered the avenue by which he could glorify God and edify his fellow men. Born in 1685, Handel shared his birth year with another great composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. The two Germans respected each other greatly, although they never met face-to-face.

Unlike Bach, Handel was not born into a musical family. His father was a barber-surgeon who practiced medicine at the court of the duke. Handel gained an interest and love for music from a teacher at the school he attended in Halle. Handel’s father was vehemently opposed to his son pursuing a career as a musician, forbidding the boy from bringing any musical instruments into the house. The story is told how young George Frideric smuggled a small clavichord into the attic of the house and then would sneak upstairs to practice whenever his father was not around to hear the music.

When he was about eight-years-old, young Handel had the opportunity to accompany his father to the court of Duke Johann Adolf. While his father and the duke discussed a physical ailment the duke was experiencing, young Handel slipped over to the organ in the palace chapel and began playing it! So impressed by the boy’s playing, the astonished duke insisted that Handel’s father give his son formal musical instruction.

Convinced by the appeals of the duke, Handel’s father allowed him to take music lessons from the organist in Halle. George Frideric Handel soon surpassed his teacher in skill and ability. He learned to play the organ, the harpsichord, the violin, and the oboe with a skill that soon became known throughout his hometown. A year later, at the age of nine, Handel was playing the organ for church services in Halle! He was also composing original music to be used for special church occasions.

Handel attended the University of Halle, and his exposure to the world outside of Germany was expanded. His experience in composition deepened, and he began writing chamber music, cantatas, and even began experimenting with opera. He traveled widely following his university days, going to Hamburg and then to Italy where he was exposed to some of the great Italian composers.

Also unlike Bach, who was a family man with a wife and many children, George Frederic Handel never married. He was fully devoted to his music. He was hired as Kapellmeister (choir director) by the German prince George of Hanover who was due to inherit the throne of England. In 1717, Handel composed his famous piece Water Music for the new Hanoverian King of England, George I.

For the next few decades, Handel composed a wide variety of pieces for the court and for the masses. He experimented with opera and with various Italian cantatas, trying to bring German and Italian styles into England. The experiments were largely a failure. Handel tried to change course several times, switching from Italian to English pieces. He struggled to make a living and sometimes fell in and out of favor with the king’s court. He managed to compose one of his most famous pieces, Zadok the Priest, as an anthem for the coronation of King George II in 1727. This anthem has been used at the coronation of every British monarch since that time.

Handel began experimenting with a new style called the oratorio, which were long musical pieces often drawn from Biblical texts. He composed Esther and then Deborah. Although neither of these oratorios gained a wide hearing, they gave Handel practice in the new genre. In August 1741, an English landowner and patron of the arts named Charles Jennens handed George Frideric Handel a folder of papers. It contained a collection that he had comprised of seventy-nine different Scripture texts, all drawn from throughout the Bible. Jennens said to Handel, “Here is a collection called Messiah. See what you can do with it.”

Handel examined the texts and began writing. He was seized by a zeal and enthusiasm that he had never before experienced. In the short span of twenty-four days, Handel composed the music for the oratorio, scarcely pausing to eat as he turned out 265 pages of manuscript! His servant would bring him plates of food, only to find the composer weeping over his musical score, tears dropping freely onto the fresh ink as he wrote the music for pieces such as “He Was Despised and Rejected of Men.” Later, the servant would find the food untouched as his master wrote on and on through the long days and nights. Handel later testified, “Whether I was in my body or out of my body as I wrote Messiah, I know not.”

Already a church member, Handel may have believed unto salvation during the process of writing Messiah. He said of the experience, “I thought I saw all heaven open before me and the great God Himself!” Although it was not his habit as it was Bach’s, upon finishing the oratorio George Frideric Handel wrote SDG at the bottom of his completed manuscript, signifying “To God alone be glory.”

Although Messiah had a warm reception at its first performance in Dublin in 1742, it took a while for the populace of London to warm up to the long, Scripture-filled oratorio. After a few lackluster receptions, Messiah was performed in May 1750, at the Foundling Hospital, which was a charitable establishment for the care of orphaned children. Twelve hundred people crowded into the chapel, including the Prince and Princess of Wales. The orphan boys were the choir!

The performance had a power and an effect that was never seen before. Grown men wept freely as they heard in musical strains of the suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord. When the rousing notes of the “Hallelujah Chorus” were heard, the Prince of Wales stood from his seat to give glory to the Lord God omnipotent Who reigneth forever and ever. The entire audience followed his example.

George Frideric Handel died in 1759, feeble and blind by this time, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey. Atop his grave is a statue of himself holding a sheet from his score of Messiah. On the score is engraved in stone the music and words from one of the soprano solos, “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.”

Almost 200 years after Handel’s death, when Queen Victoria attended a performance of Messiahsoon after her coronation, she was instructed not to stand when others did. It had become customary by then for the king to sit while others stood. As the “Hallelujah Chorus” began, she obediently remained seated. But at the words “King of kings and Lord of lords,” Queen Victoria could no longer keep her seat. She rose with bowed head to give homage to the Lord Jesus Christ. So may it ever be that all men and women bow in reference before the Christ Who alone is worthy of all glory!

Sources and Further Reference:
Woychuk, N. A. Messiah! A New Look at the Composer, the Music, and the Message! Saint Louis, MO: Scripture Memory Fellowship, 1995.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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