George Frederic Handel
Handel's Masterpiece Of Faith
For twenty-four days, George
Frideric Handel had not left his house. His servant brought him trays of food, but he ate
only a little. Completely immersed in composition and Bible reading, he let nothing deter
him from the colossal work at hand. As he put the finishing touches on the
"Hallelujah Chorus," he turned to his servant with tears in his eyes and
exclaimed: "I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God
Since 1742, generations of music lovers around the world have risen to their feet at the awe-inspiring, majestic sound of Handel's Messiah. Though this renowned oratorio is only one of his masterpieces, it points straight to the heart of this composer known for his prodigious passionsfor life, for music, for his God.
Handel was born in Halle, Germany on February 23, 1685. His mother was minister's daughter, a pious woman whom Handel revered all his life. His father, George, was a no-nonsense surgeon who held a court appointment in a nearby royal household. Accompanying his father on many of his trips to court, Handel taught himself to play several palace instruments. Although an obviously gifted child, a prodigy in fact, his father was displeased; he wanted his son to pursue a degree in law.
One day, nine-year-old Handel was asked to play the organ postlude at a royal church service. His playing was so brilliant that he caught the notice of a duke, who pressed Handel's reluctant father to let him take formal lessons. His father agreed, and Handel went to study with the organist at their local church. It wasn't long before Handel could take his place at the organ. By eighteen, Handel was a mature composer with a growing reputation.
Many critics agree that Handel was at his best when he composed religious music. Patrick Kavanaugh writes in The Spiritual Lives Of Great Composers: "Handel 'throughout his life manifested a deep sense of religion. In conversation he would frequently declare the pleasure he felt in setting the Scriptures to music....'" He was bold and expressive in everything he did, and his passion about his faith in God was no exception.
Even Handel's physique was riveting. He was tall and robust, with large hands and huge feet, and he often wore a tremendous white wig with curls that flowed down to his shoulders. He loved to joke and tell a good story. In his later years, he was loved and respected by almost all who knew him.
But it wasn't always that way. Handel met trials and misfortune that might have crushed others who did not have faith in God. "He was surrounded by a crowd of bulldogs with terrible fangs,...by jealous colleagues, arrogant virtuosos, [and] cannibalistic theatrical companies," writes music critic Romain Rolland. Out of pure spite, sometimes rival music companies would schedule their orchestral productions the same night as Handel's performances.
Yet Handel was never malicious in return. He was forgiving and did not seek to retaliate, though he came close to bankruptcy and suffered several physical breakdowns. Handel was a peacemaker at heart. At intense rehearsals, he sometimes lost his temper and yelled at a musician who made a mistake. Immediately after his outbursts, however, he was quick to apologize, admit his fault, and restore harmony.
Sometimes the conflicts Handel faced came from those within the church. Many well-meaning church leaders were angry with him for performing biblical musicincluding the Messiahin secular theaters. They preached against him angrily, and some even hired children to remove the notices for his performances. Still, Handel did not speak against them and accepted their criticism without bearing a grudge.
In times of good fortune as well as bad, Handel was generous with his money. He tried to ease suffering wherever he saw a need. Although a bachelor all his life, Handel cared tenderly for children. In fact, it was his love for unfortunate children that helped bring the Messiah into being. He composed it for a benefit to raise money for an orphan's hospital and other charities.
In 1751, Handel faced his most serious personal crisis. His eyes gave him trouble when he composed. Like his contemporary Bach, he became blind. The thought that terrified him the most was not the darkness, but the inactivity. He hated to be helpless and idle. But Handel did not give up; he knew where to find strength. He continued to attend church regularly, filling his other hours with practice on his harpsichord and organizing performances of his works.
One week before he died in April of 1759, Handel conducted his last scheduled performance of his Messiah. "He carried it through to the end without seeming fatigued, but he knew his time to leave this world was soon to come," says Jane Smith in A Gift Of Music. "He told some friends that he had one desire ...'I want to die on Good Friday, in the hope of rejoining the good God, my sweet Lord and Savior, on the day of His resurrection.'"
As he lay weakened in his bed on Good Friday, he told his servant, "I have now done with the world." He died before the next morning. On his gravestone in Westminster Abbey are inscribed the words to one of his favorite Messiah selections: "I know that my Redeemer liveth."
His close friend James Smyth wrote, "He died as he liveda good Christian, with a true sense of duty to God and to man, and in perfect charity with all the world."