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Handel's "Messiah"

For many, Christmas would not be complete without a viewing of Handel’s, “Messiah”. But what are the origins of this most famous composition? The arrangement was composed by German-born George Frideric Handel. He moved to London in his late thirties and considered himself an opera composer. However, public interest in the opera was waning in England and by 1741, a discouraged Handel wondered if retirement was near. In fact, by many accounts, Handel was not a very likeable fellow (he was known to be a large, awkward man, rough and hot-tempered enough to earn the nickname “The Great Bear”) and his rivals detested his style of opera.


However, at the point of his discouragement, Charles Jennens handed him the words (libretto, to be technical) of “Messiah”. Jennens, a literary scholar, had carefully selected Old and New Testament Scriptures documenting prophecies about the Messiah and more particularly, Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection (which is why many believe “Messiah” should be an Easter piece instead of a Christmas piece). What inspired Jennens to do this was a spiritual response against the growing interest in deism. A deist believes that God exists and created the world, but does not interfere with His creation. Deists deny the Trinity, the inspiration of the Bible, the deity of Christ, miracles and any supernatural act of redemption or salvation. Deism pictures God as uncaring and uninvolved. Thomas Jefferson was a famous deist, referring often in his writings to “Providence”.


Martin Wyatt, deputy director of Handel House Museum in London said, “For Jennens, I think Messiah was a very personal passion, a very personal mission and Jennens was a deeply religious man, a very committed Christian.” Apparently, Jennens wrote to a friend saying, “I’ve done this scripture collection for Handel, and I hope that he will expend his best efforts on it so that it becomes his best oratorio because it’s certainly on the best subject. The subject is Messiah.”


Handel is believed to have composed “Messiah” in only 24 days. Many believe it was divinely inspired and given the scale of the piece, one could barely argue that. One music scholar described the number of errors in the 259-page score as incredibly low for a composition of its length. In fact, the score is said to compose around a quarter of a million notes and it is assumed that Handel would have had to have worked 10 hours a day, writing fifteen notes per minute!


It’s said that Handel never left his house during those three weeks and a friend who visited discovered him sobbing with intense emotion. After he wrote the “Hallelujah” chorus, Handel was quoted as saying, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” Legend has it that at its London premiere, King George was apparently so moved by the “Hallelujah” chorus that he spontaneously rose from his seat. The entire audience followed his example and, for the past 250-plus years, audiences have continued to do the same. However, many have now refuted that claim and given the passage of time, it is unknown why audiences rise at the chorus.


Most importantly, Jennens and Handel saw “Messiah” as an evangelistic tool to share the gospel with the masses. They even made the controversial decision to perform “Messiah” in theatres instead of churches to reach a wider audience, including the performers themselves. Performances in Handel’s day were often benefit concerts to help release people from debtor’s prison and provide for orphans in London’s well-known Foundling Hospital. One scholar wrote, “Messiah has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan….more than any other single musical production in this or any country.”


However, Handel did not want the credit. At the end of “Messiah”, Handel wrote the letters “SDG” for Soli Deo Gloria, which means, “To God Alone the Glory.” What a great reminder.

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