Handel was the greatest composer who ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel at his tomb.
Ludwig van Beethoven
The course of human history seems a chaotic mess of random events. This, of course, is from our perspective. But God is supremely beautiful. In the whirlwind, He has His way. It is not the devil found in the details, but our God. In the billions of seemingly random events, in the diversity and chaos of life, by faith we are lifted up to the wondrous beauty of God. Not one note in His grand symphony of life is out of place, not one detail escapes His score, working all things together in one grand magnum opus.
Deism was in full steam in the England of the eighteenth century. John Locke, Herbert of Cherbury, and the Scotsman David Hume were all the rage. The God of beauty and power and wisdom was shunted off to a corner and asked to please mind his own business. But God will not be mocked. Even in the chaos and rage of the Enlightenment, God has His way.
The music fashion followed the natural divisions of the Reformation. North of the Danube, the texts of scripture were combined with the precise technical mind of the German people. South of the Danube, in Italy and France, opera was all the rage. In England, the music was as the theology: a hodgepodge of the Italian song and the German precision, combined with the gaudiness and silly hats of the French. To this, the English added their love of the choral anthem and contagious rhythms.
George Frederic Handel was born in Halle, Upper Saxony, in 1685. Handel’s father hated music and refused to allow George access to instruments or training. George was to be a lawyer. As with Luther, the Germans seemed intent on filling the world with more lawyers, but God had different plans.
When George was 6 years old, his aunt smuggled a harpsichord into their attic. His proficiency on the instrument captured the attention of the Duke Johann Adolf of Saxe-Weissenfels. The Duke insisted that little George receive musical training, and he began training with Freidrich Zachau in Halle. By the time George was 11, he was performing before royalty and had already composed keyboard sonatas.
Italian opera was the rage all over Europe, and George moved to Hamburg to try his hand. His first opera, Almira, was a huge hit, with 20 showings. However, opera was beginning to lose popularity in Germany, and in 1706 he moved to Italy, where “even the waiters sang bel canto”.
In Italy, the opera was a huge money maker for the composers and producers. But the theaters were closed for Lent. Italian composer Alessandro Scarlatti was instrumental in the development of a new form of composition—an opera without any acting, costumes or sets, modeled after the 16th century music written to be performed in the Oratory. This new form, the Oratorio, was written to be performed during Lent. It still featured the solos and duets of the opera, telling the same stories, punctuated by a chorus here and there—but without the dances, costumes, sets, and expense of the opera. Since it could be billed as a concert rather than an opera, it was acceptable for performance during Lent.
While in Venice, young Handel met the Scarlattis. Alessandro was busy with the opera and the oratorio, and his son, Domenico (exactly the same age as Handel) was gaining popularity as a composer of the keyboard sonata. They became close friends. Handel studied and copied Alessandro’s scores, and soon mastered the art of the Italian style.
Handel set himself to compose opera. In Naples he was presented with a libretto based upon the life of Nero’s mother. Agrippina was a tremendous success, and Handel’s name travelled all over the world. He was offered a position as Kapellmeister at Hanover, and at the same time, he was advised by the British ambassador to go to London.
The promise of a steady salary and good German food convinced Handel to accept the position at Hanover in 1710. He travelled to Hanover to ask for a leave of absence to visit London, with a promise to return. In London, he composed his greatest opera, Rinaldo, which was a tremendous success. Heady from his triumph and dreaming of new operas, Handel reluctantly returned to Hanover, where he found opera in decline. He dutifully composed his Concerti Grosso and other instrumental works, but his heart was in London and the opera. In 1712 he asked for another leave of absence, with another promise to return. The leave was granted, and Handel remained in London for the next forty-six years.
In 1714, Handel’s employer, the Elector of Hanover, was crowned King George I of England. His absentee Kapellmeister sheepishly made his appearance, but he was out of favor until 1717, when he composed his most famous instrumental work, Water Music, to be played on barges floating down the Thames in honor of King George I. George I was so enamored by the work that he asked that it be played three times. Handel was again in favor.
He became a citizen of England and composed more operas over the next few decades. Some were successful, some were not, and many were lost to history and bad penmanship. Italian opera was getting more and more difficult to produce in London. The Italian prima donnas were tiresome to all and the style itself was losing favor. At one point, Handel was rehearsing with the volatile soprano, Francesca Cuzzoni, who was refusing to sing an aria as he had written it. He said to her, “I know that you are a she-devil, but I am Beelzebub, the prince of the devils”; whereupon he picked her up and carried her to the open window threatening to throw her down if she didn’t behave. In 1727, Cuzzoni and her rival, Faustina, were in a free-for-all cat fight during a live performance. Handel responded with, “Let them fight it out,” and accompanied their tantrums on the kettledrums.
By the late ‘30s, Handel remembered the oratorio. His theater was losing money; operas were scarcely attended. But oratorios were cheaper to produce, and could reach a potentially large market with the middle-class public. In 1739, two oratorios, Saul and Israel in Egypt, were performed during Lent with Handel improvising on the organ as an added attraction. His reputation with the common people was growing.
The royalty and the church were harder to convince. The church’s position was that the theater was no place for a sacred subject. Charges of blasphemy were thrown around. Ladies scheduled social events to interfere with Handel’s performances, and hooligans were hired to tear down his notices. By 1741, Handel had disappeared largely from public life, and was almost bankrupt.
At this time in his life, he was approached by his greatest fan and supporter, the eccentric English gentleman, Charles Jennens. Jennens, a devout Christian, was troubled by the rise of enlightenment thinking—the denial of miracles, the denial of Christ, and the denial of the inerrancy of Scripture. He proposed to Handel a grand oratorio, using as a libretto a compilation of biblical texts tracing the advent, life, and second coming of Messiah. Jennens had already compiled the text, and asked Handel to set it to music. He suggested that they perform it at the theater for a wider audience during Lent, when the common man was thinking about religious things.
At the same time, a group of Dublin charities approached Handel. Their proposal was a concert to benefit those who were in prison for debt. Handel agreed, and put Jennens’ compilation to music in just 26 days. One of the greatest compositions in all of western music was born. Handel named the oratorio Messiah.
All of his previous experience was brought together in a magnificent setting. The German love of complex and orderly counterpoint was combined with the Italian love of beautiful melodies, which was combined with the English love of stately rhythm. The German style is heard clearly in And With His Stripes we are Healed; The Italian in He Shall Feed His Flock; and, the English in Hallelujah!—all combined together in exquisite beauty by the genius of Handel.
Handel’s particular gift was effect and the coloring of the text with music. Mozart once commented, “Handel understands effect better than any of us.” As an example, in the chorus, All We Like Sheep, the music follows the pictures drawn by Isaiah’s imagery. When the chorus sings “…have gone astray” the voices diverge and wander around aimlessly; on the words, “we have turned”, the phrases twist and turn around a single note—turning, but not going anywhere; on the words “everyone to his own way” the chorus stubbornly refuses to budge off of one repeated note. But the point is heard clearly in the climax—a most solemn and moving coda: “And the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
The “voice crying in the wilderness” is represented by the opening tenor, calling out “Comfort ye” in a silent backdrop. The Hallelujah is so powerful that King George rose to his feet during the London premiere. From the overture onward each succeeding number builds to the final Amen.
Messiah is the most famous of all oratorios, and the least typical. There is no narration, the chorus takes the predominate role, with the soloists subordinate, and there is no typical story line—but the drama of our redemption is conveyed most beautifully from beginning to end.
The world premiere was scheduled in Dublin during Lent of 1742. Handel left London to rehearse and produce the oratorio. As word began to spread, all of Dublin was ablaze. After the dress rehearsal, the demand was so great for tickets that the promoters had to request that ladies leave the hoops out of their skirts, and gentlemen refrain from wearing swords. With these modifications, they were able to seat 700, instead of the usual 600. Hoop skirts and swords immediately went out of fashion at the theater.
Not everyone was so eager. Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels and the Dean of the Cathedral of St. Patrick, was so incensed at the idea of a sacred oratorio performed in the theater that he refused to allow the Cathedral singers to participate. But the wave could not be stopped, and Swift eventually capitulated. Messiah premiered on April 13th, 1742, at the Fishamble Street Music Hall to tremendous critical acclaim. Handel had conquered Dublin.
“Strong in new arms, lo! giant Handel stands,
Like bold Briareus, with a hundred hands:
To stir, to rouse, to shake the soul he comes,
And Jove’s own thunders follow Mars’s drums.”
Thus was Handel welcomed back to London by poet Alexander Pope in 1742. With his pockets full and bankruptcy averted, he again began to build a following in London. The oratorio Samson was premiered to mixed reviews, and Messiah was offered during Lent in 1743. Due to the outcry of the church, who thought it blasphemous to use the name “Messiah” for a theater production, Handel changed the name to A Sacred Oratorio. The church and the nobility were still alienated, but the middle class loved it, and Handel’s reputation grew.
The English people loved his eccentricity. He could speak four languages, and usually did so simultaneously. He was impatient with musicians, irascible with the tardy (even if it were the prince and princess of Wales), but also kind-hearted and generous. Every performance of Messiah benefited charity. He was devotedly Christian.
When a nobleman in-formed him that everyone enjoyed the entertainment, he replied, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wished to make them better.” When asked how someone who could barely understand or speak English could put it to such wonderful music, he replied, “Madam, I thank God that I have a little religion.”
A singer once threatened during a rehearsal to jump up and down on the harpsichord. Handel told him to let everyone know when he was planning on it so he could sell the tickets. “The world would rather see you jump than sing.” If too much noise was made during rehearsals, he could curse at the musicians in their language of choice.
“His bon mots”, writes Will Durant in The Age of Voltaire, “were as remarkable as Jonathan Swift’s, but one had to know four languages to enjoy them.”
For the most part, the common Englishman loved their eccentric Saxon, but it was not until after his death that his greatness was fully appreciated.
“England at last came to love the old German who had striven so hard to be an Englishman. He had failed, but he had tried, even to swearing in English,” continues Durant. They loved his strange demeanor, his rages, his swagger, and his colorful languages, but most of all, they loved his music.
In 1747, Handel wrote Music for the Royal Fireworks to commemorate the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. The government sponsored the fireworks and Handel provided the music. London Bridge was held up for three hours with the thousands that pressed to hear it. It is said that half of London attended.
By the end of his life, his eyesight had failed and he had suffered two strokes, but he continued to make music until the very end.
Handel performed Messiah over 50 times until his death in 1759. Each time, he made changes to the score, so that it is impossible to determine what the “original” is, and what came later. None of these performances were at Christmas, since it was intended as a Lenten piece, and only one was in a church. His last performance was at the harpsichord conducting his beloved Oratorio. Returning home, he passed out and was carried the rest of the way. His only wish was to die on Good Friday, “in the hopes of meeting my good God, my sweet Lord and Savior, on the day of his Resurrection.” He died on good Saturday, April 14th, 1759, and was buried with honors at Westminster Abbey. On his monument, there is a copy of the score with the words, “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” He could have had no better tribute.
Since that time the scandal has continued. England and America loved the music. The clergy railed against it. John Newton himself preached 50 sermons against sacred music in the theater, with the music of Handel bearing the brunt of his tirades. But the music speaks for itself. While Handel was sequestered in his room writing the music, he is reported to have said, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.” Whether the report is true, or just part of the legend of the man, only the hardest heart can sit through the pleading of the alto crying out “Come unto me” without the stirring of the soul; or hear the chorus sing “Hallelujah” without lifting their hearts to heaven. Who would not weep at “Behold the Lamb of God”?
The music itself has left an indelible mark on the history and hearts of the people of God.
[A listening note: Since the nineteenth century, there has been a drive to add more and more instruments, and more and more voices, leaving the sound muddled, fat and tiresome. Most recordings made before 1980 are of this sort. Fortunately in the last 20 years, there have been remarkable recoveries of the simple power of the music itself, without the hype and the bloating. This writer’s personal favorite is the recording done by The Academy and Chorus of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, conducted by Sir Neville Marriner.]