In the Olympic games of music history, Bach and Handel share the gold medal platform as the greatest composers of the Baroque era. However, that is the view from our twenty-first-century vantage point. In the late Baroque period, there would have been only one reigning composer, and that composer was George Frideric Handel.
While Bach was a supremely gifted organist, his compositions never made it outside of Germany where he lived and worked. On the other hand, Handel was internationally famous during his lifetime. Mainly due to his oratorios well known and highly regarded in the decades and centuries that followed his death.
George Frideric Handel was born on a cold February day in 1685, deep in the heart of Germany. His father was a prominent and successful barber surgeon for the local duke. He had determined early on that young George would study civil law.
But George showed more interest in things more artistic, especially more musical. He felt intrigued by instruments, the sounds they could make, and the feelings they could evoke. His practical father intervened and forbade him from taking part in what he called “musical nonsense.”
That wasn’t about to stop the determined little youngster. By some unknown means, George could get a small clavichord. He smuggled it to a tiny room at the top of the house. Then, at night, while the rest of the family was asleep, George would silently creep up to the room and play music. It was there that Handel discovered the magic of music.
Handel surprised everyone at church one day when the eight-year-old climbed up on the organ bench and began to play the postlude. He left everyone flabbergasted, especially his father, who had no idea of his son’s talents. Even so, his father sternly reminded his son that his destiny was for something more practical than music.
Eventually, George Frideric Handel enrolled in law school according to his father’s wishes, but the musical pull was too much. Soon, he left the confines of the classroom and headed out on the road. He traveled from city to city, learning what he could about each area’s musical styles and gifts. Finally, he settled in London in 1711 at age 26. His operas and oratorios gained wide acceptance, and Handel became an established part of English music and society circles.
By the 1730s, British audiences had grown tired of operas sung in German or Italian. They preferred comedic performances in English. This helped George Frideric Handel, who struggled to keep his creditors away. It led him to push himself to the limit by composing four operas within the same year.
As a result, Handel suffered a stroke that paralyzed his right arm. The doctor who treated him said, “We may save the man—but the musician is lost forever. It seems to me that his brain has been permanently injured.”
But George Frideric Handel refused to give up. He surprised everyone when he miraculously recovered his strength and declared, “I have come back from Hades.”
Messiah and It’s Legacy
In 1741, swimming in debt and out of favor as a composer, George Frideric Handel received a libretto from Charles Jennens, a poet with whom he had worked previously. Using scripture references, the book detailed the life of Jesus Christ from His birth and ministry to His crucifixion and resurrection.
56-year-old Handel sequestered himself in his London home and began to compose music heralding the life of Jesus Christ. In just 23 days, he completed a 260-page oratorio. He titled the massive work Messiah.
Handel had a special request from the sponsors of the premiere performance of Messiah in Dublin, Ireland, 1742. He wanted to donate the proceeds from the concert to prisoners, orphans, and the sick.
The performance received rave reviews and exceeded expectations, raising 400 pounds and freeing 142 men from debtors’ prison. Hoping to squeeze in paying patrons, the charity sponsors asked the ladies to refrain from wearing hoops under their skirts. They also encouraged men to leave their swords at home.
Although the work received love in Dublin, London’s success was not a success. There audiences were grappled with a sacred work staged in theaters. In 1749, George Frideric Handel held charity performance to assist with the completion of London Foundling Hospital for abandoned infants and children. He began a series of concerts that once again brought Messiah to public audiences with renewed appreciation. Easter-time performances of Messiah continued each year at the Foundling Hospital until the 1770s. Handel conducted or attended every one of them until he died in 1759.
Some 40 years after Messiah’s premiere, English musicologist Charles Burney wrote, “This great work played in all parts of the kingdom with increasing reverence and delight. It has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan and enriched succeeding managers of the oratorios, more than any single production in this or any other country.”
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