Pioneer magazine

April 09: The Messiah’s Handel

Paul Hurley, SVD, recalls the “deeply religious German genius” whose masterpiece was first performed in Dublin and who died 250 years ago this month

EVERY Advent and Christmas, Handel’s Messiah, his masterpiece and best known work, is heard by millions of Christians and others around the world. He composed it in 24 days during the summer of 1741 while living like a hermit in his London home. A servant who brought his meals often returned over an hour later to find the food untouched and his master staring into space. After he composed the Hallelujah Chorus, the servant found him with tears streaming down his face. The whole oratorio, based on passages from the Bible, is a magnificent contemplation on the Christian creed which, some think, only divine inspiration could have conceived.

It was first performed on Good Friday 13 April 1742, in the Charitable Musical Society’s new Music Hall in Fishamble Street, on the east side of Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, where Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus was also first heard six years later. The Duke of Devonshire, Britain’s Lord Lieutenant in Ireland, invited him over from London for his Messiah’s first production, in aid of various charities. It was sung by five men and 26 boys from the choirs of St Patrick’s and Christ Church Cathedrals, conducted by Handel before an audience of 700, “composed of ladies of distinction and other people of the greatest quality, many (Protestant) bishops and lawyers,” he reported.

During his nine months in Dublin, where he stayed in a guesthouse in Abbey Street, Handel also conducted performances of some of his other works in music halls, and played the organ in various Protestant churches. “I cannot sufficiently express the kind treatment I receive here,” he wrote to his English friend Charles Jennens. Among those he visited in Dublin was Dean Swift who, on being told his visitor’s name, said, “Oh! A German and a genius.”

George Frideric Handel was born in 1865 in Halle, near Leipzig in East Germany. The second son of George, a surgeon, and his wife Dorothea, both Lutherans, he learned to play the harpsichord and organ before he was seven, but his father wanted him to study law instead of music. When he died, George was twelve and, out of regard for his father, he studied law for a short time before being appointed organist of Halle’s Calvinist Cathedral at 17.

A year later he left home for Hamburg, where he was employed as violinist in an orchestra and also gave private music lessons. There he composed his first three operas, only one of which, Almira, has survived.  And there also he met Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici, who urged him to go to Italy and gain experience of Italian opera, then becoming very popular throughout Europe.

So in 1706 Handel went off to Italy, where he spent four years, travelling back and forth many times between Florence, Venice, Rome and Naples. In Rome he composed his first oratorio, The Triumph of Time and Truth, for which Cardinal Pamphili wrote the words and which was first performed in the palace of Cardinal Ottoboni, a rich patron of the arts and nephew of Pope Alexander V111. But it was for the wealthy Prince Ruspoli that he wrote most of his Roman compositions, including his Resurrection oratorio and some 40 cantatas. Ruspoli employed him both at his palace in Rome and his country estates, where he was expected to compose secular cantatas for weekly performances. While in Rome he also played the organ in St John Lateran’s Basilica.

His first all-Italian opera, Rodrigo was produced in Florence in 1707 and followed two years later by Agrippina, which ran for an unprecedented 27 performances and established his reputation as an opera composer and an international figure. “The Italian years were decisive in Handel’s career,” writes his biographer Winton Dean. “Italy was the home not only of opera, oratorio and cantata but of the principal instrumental forms, the concerto and the sonata. Handel met all the leading practitioners: Scarlatti, Corelli, Vivaldi and Albinoni. He arrived in Italy a gifted but crude composer and left it a polished artist. The most important lesson he learnt there was the command of a rich and varied melodic style, which distinguished all his later music.”

In 1710 he returned to Hanover, where he was made Kapellmeister to the Elector or Prince, but soon went to London for eight months. There he composed, in 15 days, his opera Rinaldo, which was a great success and a decisive influence on his future career. He then went back to Hanover for another year and, in 1712, settled permanently in London, where he lived for the first three years with Lord Burlington and met people like Pope, Fielding and Hogarth.

Two years later his former employer, Elector George of Hanover became King George 1 of Britain, which enabled Handel to begin his great contribution to music in England for nearly 50 years. King George, who, though he once said, in his broken English, “I hate all boets and bainters,” had a great love of music. Otherwise his main interests were horses and women; he divorced his wife, had her imprisoned in Germany for her last 32 years and brought his two German mistresses to England.

It was for him that Handel wrote his very popular Water Music, first performed for a royal party on the Thames in 1717, when George asked to have “a concert on the river”. The King and his court went in one barge and Handel with his musicians in another.

Two years later he got a second royal commission, for the coronation of King George 11, to compose the anthem Zadok the Priest, which has since been played at every British royal coronation ceremony. Nearly 30 years later he got yet another such commission, to compose his Music for the Royal Fireworks. The fireworks themselves were a disaster, but Handel employed a huge orchestra, before an audience of 12,000, to perform what is  among the most popular of all his music.  “Even in his own lifetime,” says the critic Donald Tovey, “Handel’s music was recognised as a reflection of the English national character, and his capacity for realising the common mood was nowhere better shown than in his Royal Fireworks. He made oratorio and large-scale choral works the most popular musical forms in England, and created for himself a new public among the rising middle classes, who would have turned away in moral indignation from Italian opera but who were quite ready to be edified by a moral tale from the Bible.”

He became a naturalized British citizen in 1727, was made director of the Royal Academy of Music and had a long association with the Covent Garden Royal Opera House. For 36 years he lived in 25 Brook Street, now the Handel Museum, near London’s Grosvenor Square.

Handel was large and very portly,” wrote his friend Sir John Hawkins. “His features were finely marked and his countenance placid. He was rough in his manners and conversation, with his broken English, but devoid of all ill-nature. His general look was somewhat heavy and sour. A hard worker, he came to have less and less patience with the trivialities of social life. In his last years he was seldom seen in public, except in church. He was exceptionally generous, especially to charities. While he was a devout Christian, his piety was not incompatible with profane swearing in several languages. I often saw him on his knees in church, expressing by his looks the utmost fervour of devotion. He remained a Lutheran, but was totally free from bigotry.” He composed music for the Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran Churches.

Handel never married, though he had lasting friendships with some female singers. With a voracious appetite, he enjoyed being entertained by friends in various parts of England.

In 1751 his sight began to fail in one eye and later in the other. After three unsuccessful operations for glaucoma, he went blind for his last seven years, though he continued conducting and playing the organ from memory. He died on 14 April 1759 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Most of his operas are now forgotten, though some of their songs, like Where’er you walk (from Semele), Ombra mai fu, better known as Handel’s Largo, (from Serse) and Angels ever bright and fair (from Theodora) are perennial gems. But his 29 oratorios, many with biblical themes, have never been surpassed. Countless Christians for nearly 300 years have had their faith strengthened by his Messiah.

Beethoven described him as “the greatest composer who ever lived” and Haydn said he was “the master of us all”. A deeply religious genius, who used the talents God gave him so extremely well, might he not also be called The Messiah’s Handel?