Monday, December 19, 2011

A History of Messiah by George Frideric Handel

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.  Isaiah 9:6  

A History of Messiah by George Frideric Handel

The story goes that after the first performance of Messiah, an enthusiastic member of the audience congratulated composer and director George Frideric Handel for producing such a wonderful piece of "entertainment."  "Entertainment!" Handel replied, "My purpose was not to entertain, but to teach them something."

That was April 13, 1742, in Dublin, Ireland. The previous year, Handel had been approached by the librettist Charles Jennens about a musical oratorio on the life of the Messiah. Jennens' concept was to tell the entire story of the Christ through passages of Scripture put to music. He would begin with the Old Testament prophecies foretelling the ministry of Christ, move to the New Testament's accounts of the birth of Jesus, then forward through his death and resurrection, all seen through the eyes of the writers of Scripture.

In an age when illiteracy was widespread and written copies of the Bible were expensive and rare, Handel became excited about Jennens' idea. Handel pioneered the "oratorio," a musical composition designed to teach the Scriptures by setting them to music. He seems to have immediately understood how important such a composition about the life of Jesus might be, and he set to work on it right away.  The following account is told:

In a small London house on Brook Street, a servant sighs with resignation as he arranges a tray full of food he assumes will not be eaten.  For more than a week, he has faithfully continued to wait on his employer, an eccentric composer, who spends hour after hour isolated in his own room. Morning, noon, and evening the servant delivers appealing meals to the composer and returns later to find the bowls and platters largely untouched.

Once again, he steels himself to go through the same routine, muttering under his breath about how oddly temperamental musicians can be.  As he swings open the door to the composer’s room, the servant stops in his tracks.

The startled composer, tears streaming down his face, turns to his servant and cries out, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” George Frederic Handel had just finished writing a movement that would take its place in history as the Hallelujah Chorus.

Handel set to work composing on August 22 in his little house on Brook Street in London.  He grew absorbed in the work that he rarely left his room, hardly stopping to eat.  Within six days part one was complete.  In nine days more he had finished part two, and in another six, part three.  The orchestration was completed in another two days.  In all 260 pages of manuscript were filled in the remarkable short time of 24 days.  This was not out of his custom when writing.

Sir Newman Flower, one of Handel’s many biographers, summed up the consensus of history: Considering the immensity of the work, and the short time involved, it will remain, perhaps forever, the greatest feat in the whole history of music composition.”  Handel’s title for the commissioned work was simply Messiah.

Messiah premiered on April 13, 1742 as a charitable benefit, raising 400 pounds and freeing 142 men from debtor’s prison.  A year later, Handel staged it in London.  Controversy emanating from the Church of England continued to plague Handel, yet the King of England attended the performance.  As the first notes of the triumphant Hallelujah Chorus rang out, the king rose.  Following the royal protocol, the entire audience stood too, initiating a tradition that has lasted more than two centuries.  This work has had an uncanny spiritual impact on the lives of its listeners.

So, this Christmas when you thrill to the presentation of Handel’s Messiah, know that it was written to teach us about our wonderful Savior.

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