George Frideric Handel, the Saxon Lutheran living in England, locked himself into his London flat on this day, the 21st of August, in 1741. He would emerge 14 days later with a 300-page oratorio that was destined to become the greatest piece of music written in the English language. Under the hot London sun, Handel could never have guessed that it would become a Christmas classic. Nor could he foresee that his masterpiece about humanity's redemption in Christ would itself become a redemptive act for a group of Irish debtors in a Dublin cell. We can tell the story of Handel's Messiah by winding through a who's who of 18th century Europe - from the father of Pietism, the first family of Renaissance patronage, the greatest satirist in the English language, and a Saxon who found himself on the English throne.
Georg Friedrich Händel (he anglicized it as George Frideric Handel) was born in Halle, Germany in 1695. Halle was the center of Lutheran Pietism in its heyday. Phillip Jakob Spener, the father of Pietism, helped found the University of Halle where Handel would attend university. The theologians and pastors working and teaching in Halle undoubtedly influenced the young Handel, and when given a choice between a life in music or continuing to study law at Halle, he chose the former.
Handel showed himself such a natural on the clavichord and in composing music he was soon offered a lucrative position under the famed DeMedici family in Italy. In Italy, he began writing operas: a controversial and bawdy genre. Handel followed the money but also wrote operas with Christian stories. His "Esther," based on the Old Testament heroine, caused a stir later in his life when it was deemed too religious for the secular stage and thus a form of blasphemy.
Handel wouldn't have to worry about deciding between a future in Italian opera or church music as in within just a few years Pope Clement XI banned opera across Italy. Handel then accepted a position under the patronage of Queen Anne of Great Britain. Her distaste for him as a German and Lutheran may have become a problem, but her untimely death without children made her the last Stuart on the throne. Because of some Protestant political machinations in the prior century, this also meant that a German, specifically a Saxon like Handel, would inherit the English crown. The King Georges of the House of Hanover (Handel worked for I, and II, and would know III as a young man) favored their fellow countryman. In return, Handel repaid them with two of his most famous pieces. His Water Music was written as a piece to be played while the King took his pleasure cruises down the Thames. His Royal Fireworks has been a British royal tradition since he wrote the piece for George's son, George II.
All was going well for the sometimes-temperamental foreigner. He never married and was known as a generous benefactor. (Perhaps too generous because by the 1730's Handel was in a good deal of debt) But his charmed life was about to take a turn.
In 1737, Handel suffered a paralytic fit and lost feeling in his right hand - a career-altering disability for a musician and composer. Had he retired at this point, he would have likely gone down in the history of orchestral and choral music as an all-time great. Water Music and Royal Fireworks are enough to qualify him among the best composers from history. But, perhaps, as he sensed his mortality, he was encouraged to pick up a libretto (or the text for a musical work) given to him by his friend Charles Jennens. It was hardly a libretto, but more a script comprised of bible verses. Handel saw in Messiah the opportunity to flex his theological abilities and immediately took Jennens up on the offer to provide music to this, the story of humankind's redemption in the anointed one: Jesus, the Messiah.
Messiah has been performed, somewhere, every year since 1747,
And thus in late August, Handel began to write, on average 10 hours a day to complete the work of over 300 pages (some record it as starting on the 22nd, yet Handel himself used the 21st in his recollection). It was never intended to be a Christmas piece. It almost ended up in Handel's "back catalog" with Oratorios like Esther. He was undoubtedly proud of what he wrote but didn't arrange to have it performed by his usual group of musicians at home in London. He eventually arranged to conduct Messiah in Dublin as part of a fundraising effort by various Christians to help free their fellow men from debtors prison. Handel was already famous, and thus the audience attracted would pay him a handsome sum with enough left over to pay the debts of the prisoners. But to perform a piece this overtly theological, outside of the church, would require approval from the Dean of Trinity Cathedral, Dublin. While church heads often gave Handel headaches, luckily the current Dean of Trinity was a man with less of an appetite for theological quarrels and more inclined to literature. The Dean was none other than the Reverend Jonathan Swift, of Gulliver’s Travels fame, and he allowed the show to prepare for its debut in Dublin in the Spring of 1742. It went off successfully, the debtors were released, and in a show of gratitude, the people of Dublin paid off Handel's remaining debt back in London.
Messiah has been performed, somewhere, every year since 1747, but when it should be performed is controversial. It was first performed in April and was meant to be a Lenten piece to help facilitate reflection on the story of Christ's victory over death. However, Handel's contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach would write both his “St. John's” and “St. Matthew's Passions” which were soon identified with the season of Lent and Passiontide. Messiah begins with the prophecies of Isaiah and John the Baptist heralding the coming Christ and was therefore seen by many as an appropriate Advent piece.
The rest, of course, is history. But what might we take away from the story?
1. First, check out the full libretto here. Read the Scripture verses that Jennens put together from Genesis to Revelation. The headings help focus us on the fall of humankind, redemption in Christ, and the ultimate death of death.
2. Listen to the music (the best advice I received was to check out this rollicking version), and see how Handel uses music in tandem with the words to express what is happening. From the actual shaking of voices when the prophet Haggai proclaims the shaking of the earth, to the soaring music under the words of St. Paul proclaiming the good news to us, the music helps to emphasize the words.
3. If you read the libretto in English, be thankful for the theology of Handel who saw music fit for worship only if the people worshipping could understand it.
4. Notice the heavy use of the book of Revelation in the 3rd part of the piece. The events surrounding the crowning of the Lamb are not in some future era, but a reality now. The whole section reads like a piece of realized eschatology. The past, present, and future are met in Christ in the fullness of time for our salvation. We don't need to look for signs of coming peace, or worry about when (or if) our salvation occurred. All of Scripture points us to the cross.
5. And finally, despite Handel's intent for this to be a Lenten piece, remember that listening to Christmas music year-round is always a good idea.