With its subject, use of Scripture, and majestic soaring choruses, George Ferederic Handel’s Messiah is easily the most recognizable musical piece in Western Civilization. It is also perhaps the most widely performed piece of classical or choral music in the West. After hearing a performance of the Messiah, fellow composer Franz Joseph Haydn simply said of Handel, “This man is the master of us all.” Not to be outdone, Beethoven declared, “Handel is the greatest composer who ever lived. I would bare my head and kneel at his grave.”
The text of the Messiah, compiled from Scripture, was sent to Handel by his friend Charles Jennens and begins with Isaiah 40, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” Part 1 of the Messiah deals with the prophetic pronouncements of the Virgin Birth, and the actual birth account taken from Luke’s Gospel. Part II deals with Christ’s passion and his atoning death, his resurrection and ascension, and sending out of the Gospel. Part III is a celebration of the general resurrection of the dead, the day of judgment, the victorious nature of Christ and his triumphant reign. It is a bounty of Christian doctrine packed into an English oratorio. Amazingly, Handel composed the work in 23 days. Quoting the Apostle Paul, Handel said, “Whether I was in my body or out of my body as I wrote it I know not. God knows.”
Messiah is so masterful and celebrated it overshadows some of Handel’s other stellar work. Concerning the Messiah in particular, there is quite a bit of information out there about Handel the entrepreneur. Below is an audio story about Handel’s entrepreneurial endeavors and his charitable work tied into the Messiah that aired on PBS in 2009. You can watch the video version of the story here.
Tim Slover, author of Messiah: The Little-Known Story of Handel’s Beloved Oratorio adds this note,
The Royal Family, fellow Germans from the same region of Hanover, were staunch supporters of his work, but this did not translate into financial security for Handel, as the Crown only sporadically underwrote his opera seasons. When weddings or other occasions called for it, the Hanovers commissioned music from him, but this was never enough to live on, and, anyway, Handel was no court composer. By temperament he was an entrepreneur. He spent several months of every year striking business deals with theater owners, auditioning and hiring singers, and rehearsing and performing instrumental music, operas, and oratorios. His fortunes rose or fell with the public’s reception of his music, and there were lean times as well as prosperous ones.
Messiah, while popular at the time, was certainly not as beloved as it is today. There was controversy surrounding the performance, specifically that such a sacred piece of music would be played outside of the Church and in secular music halls and venues. And while Messiah was composed for charitable purposes, it showcased more of Handel’s entrepreneurial skills and willingness to take risks.
Handel, a devout Lutheran, loved sacred music and believed every word of what he wrote and composed. As mentioned earlier, Handel took a lot of risks with his music because he liked to perform what he loved most. He was bankrupt at various times in his life and had fallen out of favor with the public. Just a few years before the Messiah was composed, Frederic the Great declared that, “Handel’s great days are over. His inspiration is exhausted.” Handel himself was even close to being sent to debtors prison. Before Messiah, Handel conducted what he thought would be his last performance and retired for a time. When Messiah was first performed in 1742, it raised enough money to free 142 men from debtor’s prison so their sons and daughters would not be orphans.
Many readers have of course seen the Messiah performed and may have attended a performance this year or selections may have been performed in their places of worship. It was originally intended as a Lenten piece, but is now largely played in the Christmas season. What is so remarkable about the Messiah to me is not that it is just such a majestic and beautiful work of music, but that it is impossible to separate Christ from the performance. While many sacred works are embraced by a secular world and secular music performers, the meaning of the Messiah is so plain it cannot be overlooked. In fact, Jennens selected the text of Messiah to counter the rising arguments of the deists and secularists of his day.
Messiah thunderously crushes the secular agenda and goals of today or of any period. Theologian Tom Oden offers some profound words on the Western world and Christ in his systematic theology The Word of Life. “It would be strangely unhistorical if the historians accidentally ignored him [Christ] or decided to study all figures except the one who has affected Western history most,” says Oden. He adds that “Western history would not be Western history without him.” Later on Oden observes, “Deeper even than the mystery of his astonishing historical influence is the simpler, starker question that rings through Christian reflection: Cur Deus Homo? Why did God Become human?” Handel answers that so thoroughly, beautifully, and triumphantly with his Messiah.