My Sunday school class has been studying the text and story behind hymns. Every week, we pick a hymn and dig up something to share the following Sunday. In December, we turned our attention to Christmas carols. Since I cannot go through advent without airing Handel’s Messiah, I suggested that sacred oratorio. Our teacher volunteered me to guide the class since I sounded so enthusiastic.
I showed up the following week with copies of the text of all three parts for everyone to study. Before sharing the story behind the music, I asked, “How many of you have ever heard Handel’s Messiah?” Only one hand went up while everyone else shifted in their seats. My stomach dropped and silently wondered how the next half hour would go. First, I explained the background.
Handel’s Messiah was born out of distressing circumstances. Charles Jennens, a wealthy English gentlemen, grieved the death of his brother Robert. The young student became deeply depressed after lengthy contact with deists. Deists believe that god is an impersonal creator of the universe who walked away from his entire creation. Diests view Jesus as a gifted teacher who lived a good life and died a pointless death. Robert doubted everything he had ever believed and eventually committed suicide.
Charles had already put together two “Scripture collections” for oratorios by Handel: Saul and Israel in Egypt. Driven by his brother’s death, he put together a new collection on the “subject which excels every other subject”: the redemptive work of Jesus. He had hoped that inspirational music focused on the prophecies of the Messiah and their fulfillment would touch the mind and soul of the doubtful. In the summer of 1741, he put together verses from Psalm, Isaiah, Lamentations, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Matthew, Luke, John, Romans, I Corinthians, Hebrews, and Revelation.
The librettist visited his friend Georg Frideric Handel, who was deeply distressed. Jennens urged the composer to set the text to music in time for Easter. Handel reluctantly agreed but figured it would take a year.
The German composer had good reason for hesitating. After leaving his homeland, he focused on Italian opera in England, just as its popularity waned. He shifted to sacred oratorio, a Biblical story set to music without costumes, scenery, and acting. Hearing “common mummers” sing a sacred text in the theater outraged some of the church. The bishop of London forbid the performance of Esther, but Handel ignored him and even royalty attended. In 1737, he faced bankruptcy and suffered a mild stroke. When Israel in Egypt debuted in 1739, some Christians stole the advertisements and disrupted performances. When confronted with concerns of the Puritans, Handel replied, “I have read my Bible very well and will choose for myself.” The controversy ruined him financially and this former royal composer faced debtor’s prison. In 1741, he scheduled a “farewell appearance” in London.
Not long after Jennens’ visit, Dublin charities gave Handel an offer he could not refuse. They asked him to compose for a benefit performance to raise money that would free men from debtor’s prison, and a generous commission would keep him from prison. Handel began work on August 22, 1741 in his little house on Brook Street in London. He barely ate and rarely left his room for three weeks. A friend stopped to visit Handel during this time and saw him sob with intense emotion. Handel recalled of finishing the Hallelujah chorus, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.” He later quoted Paul, “Whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote it I know not.” It took six days to compose Part One, nine for Part Two, and another six for Part Three. He wrapped up the orchestration and, in twenty-four days, had composed 260 pages of music.
Controversy did not stop the show. Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels and dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, fumed but eventually allowed his musicians to play at the premiere on April 13, 1742. Demand for tickets was so high that the music hall told men and women to leave their swords and hoops at home to free up 100 more spots. A crowd of 700 attended and raised 400 pounds that released 142 men from prison. Messiah turned around Handel’s career and has been in continuous performance ever since.
Before his death, Handel conducted thirty Messiah performances, only during Lent. John Wesley sat in one audience and remarked, “I doubt if that congregation was ever so serious at a sermon as they were during this performance,” he remarked. Another writer concluded, Messiah “has probably done more to convince thousands of mankind that there is a God about us than all the theological works ever written.” Handel responded to accolades on the excellent entertainment with, “My Lord, I should be sorry if I only entertain them. I wish to make them better.”
The story of the men behind Messiah warmed my classmates to a style of music unfamiliar to them. They took turns reading the text of Part One and discussing its meaning. Before each piece, I explained to them who sang it and how it made me feel as both singer and listener. Half-apologizing, I concluded that this three-hour long composition would probably sound like opera to them. Even if they never listened to it, studying the text would make their advent and lent more meaningful.
Quietly, a person I considered least likely to show an interest asked, “Is it recorded somewhere?” Relieved, I gladly shared that there are so many recordings that is hard to pick which one. He followed up with, “Which one would be closest to the original?” I had no answer but promised to share a link at our church’s Facebook page. Later, another classmate told me that her husband, who has never listened to opera in his life, was completely intrigued by learning a piece of history completely unfamiliar to him. She finished, “We’re looking for that 1984 version by Robert Shaw that you recommended.”
“That calm delight
Which, if I err not, surely must belong
To those first-born affinities that fit
Our new existence to existing things,
And, in our dawn of being, constitute
The bond of union between life and joy.”
~ William Wordsworth
© 2011 by Tammy Glaser All rights reserved.