Saturday, February 23, 2008

George Frideric Handel (Feb 23, 1685 - Apr 14, 1759)

This article was written and submitted as a guest-post by Andy Efting (Unsearchable Riches).

George Frideric Handel was born February 23, 1685 and lived for 74 years, dying in 1759. His contemporaries included such notables at George Whitefield (1714-1770), Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758); John Wesley (1702-1791); Ben Franklin (1706-1790), and J.S. Bach (1685-1750). These are just a few of the names that could be mentioned from this time period. It is amazing to think of the notable figures in theology, politics, and music that all lived in that same era and still influence us today.

Handel, of course, was a musician and of his music, Beethoven once declared, “Handel is the greatest composer who ever lived. I would bare my head and kneel at his grave.” While probably referring to his entire body of work, for most of us, George Frideric Handel is synonymous with one major work and that is his great sacred oratorio, Messiah.

Handel composed Messiah in 1741 and performed it for the first time in Dublin, Ireland in 1742 as a charity benefit. As was his standard practice, Handel worked very quickly, finishing the entire score in less than a month. This haste did not sit well with Charles Jennens, who supplied Handel with the libretto (or text). He wrote, "His Messiah has disappointed me, being set in great hast, tho' he said he would be a year about it, & make it the best of all his Compositions. I shall put no more Sacred Works into his hands, to be thus abus'd."[1]

I don’t know what this comment says about the standards of musical composition back in Handel’s day, but Jennens eventually warmed to the final product, as least somewhat, as evidenced by a note he wrote a few years after its premiere,

"I shall show you a collection I gave Handel, call'd Messiah, which I value highly, & he has made a fine Entertainment of it, tho' not near so good as he might & ought to have done. I have with great difficulty made him correct some of the grossest faults in the composition, but he retain'd his Overture obstinately, in which there are some passages far unworthy of Handel, but much more unworthy of the Messiah."

This quote reveals one of the problems Handel faced with his most famous piece. There was wide-spread resistance to using a sacred subject as the source for entertainment. As Handel biographer Hamish Swanton wrote, “Everyone was nervous of New Testament words being further reduced in authority by being sung in a theatre by singers of doubtful reputations among decent folk.”[2]

This reservation may have been one reason for performing the premiere in Dublin rather than London. Evidently, that same reticence did not exist in Ireland. In fact, over 700 were expected for its first performance. Due to the expected crowd, and quite humorously to us today, ladies were advised not to wear hoop dresses and the gentlemen were asked to leave their swords at home. The London premiere occurred a year later in 1743, its legitimacy still not accepted by all parties.

Today, of course, all such reservations have been largely, if not completely, overcome. For those of us who love God’s Word, its prophetic emphasis in the Old Testament of God’s plan of redemption through the Messiah, and Christ’s triumph over sin by the resurrection, there could hardly be a more thrilling piece of music. In fact, I dare say that those familiar with Handel’s Messiah cannot read Isaiah 40 without hearing the soothing tenor accompagnato and aria that begins his oratorio, or Isaiah 9 without hearing Handel’s rousing chorus, or many other passages without hearing them come alive in one’s mind through Handel’s music. The crime today is that most performances only include the so-called Christmas portion.

While Handel’s Messiah is most well-known, it is not his only oratorio dealing with sacred subject matter. While none measure up to Messiah, several are quite excellent, including his Solomon, Belshazzar, Israel in Egypt, and the historical Judas Maccabaeus (from which we get the tune for the hymn, Thine Be the Glory). Others worth mentioning are Jephtha, Esther, Joshua, Saul, Deborah, Joseph and his Brethren, and Samson. Most online CD stores allow you to listen to samples before you buy. For those not familiar with these works, it may be a profitable exercise to sample some of these less-known pieces.

Recommend CD’s:

On the Web:

[1], accessed 18 Feb 2008.

[2] Hamish Swanston as cited by David Daniell in his The Bible English, pp. 569-70.