It is arguably the most famous piece of choral music in human history and is, without a doubt, George Frideric Handel’s most celebrated work. When it is performed properly it is exhausting to the bodies of the singers while at the same time it is invigorating to the souls of the hearers. It is a complex, taxing work to sing or conduct, but inevitably audiences stand to their feet with enthusiastic ovations upon hearing it performed. This unparalleled song, often heard at Christmas time, is none other than the masterpiece Handel’s Messiah.
Born in Germany in 1685, George Handel was set, by his parents, on the ambitious path of becoming a lawyer. However, Handel had other ideas. Law was generally distasteful to him but music was invariably sweet. As one observer of history has said, “German Law missed nothing in its denial of Handel, but English music would have suffered an irreparable loss had his genius been denied.” Handel loved music and he loved God and sought to glorify the latter through the former.
For many years Handel traveled the European countryside composing and sharing his 42 operas with the world. While he was extremely competent with his music, historians tell us that Handel was quite incompetent with his money. In 1737, at the age of 52, the incalculable financial loss and stress of the management side of his career took such a toll on him that he suffered a severe stroke. It caused temporary paralysis in his right arm and blurred vision in his eyes.
As a result, Handel gave up on his opera pursuits not knowing where to turn next. What was undoubtedly a discouraging decision soon gave way to what would become the most encouraging moment in his life. Handel set his talent towards writing choral pieces known as oratorios. This was a career move out of which the Messiah would soon be born.
Oratorio means “oratory or teaching by music.” These choral pieces were originally designed to teach people the stories and doctrines of the Bible. As one writer explains, “Oratorios became useful and popular at a time when Bibles were so rare and expensive that few could afford them, and of the few who could, fewer still were sufficiently educated to be able to read them.” To overcome these obstacles composers set the great stories and truths of Scripture to music so that men and women of any age could forever learn God’s Word.
When the premiere of his first oratorio at Dublin was finished a friend approached Handel to compliment him. “I must congratulate you upon such a beautiful piece of entertainment,” he said to the composer. “Entertainment!” exclaimed Handel, “That was not written for entertainment, it was written for education.” It was not Handel’s desire simply to amuse the masses, instead, he wanted to transform society by teaching the Scriptures to anyone that would listen and learn. To prove his commitment to this notion, Handel never conducted his oratorios for a fee, but took only charity and donations in return.
As a result of his fiscal failures and physical ailments, in 1741, Handel was financially broke and emotionally broken. Amid his depression, a ray of light, though, began to shine. A man name Charles Jennens was writing and compiling the lyrics for an oratorio about the birth, passion, and return of Christ. Upon reading this, Handel was instantly inspired and feverishly began to compose the Messiah using Jennens’ lyrics. The entire score was completed in a remarkable 24 days.
There is a fascinating, though unsubstantiated, story told about Handel writing the Hallelujah portion of this work. Handel’s assistant walked in to Handel’s room after shouting to him for some time with no response. The assistant supposedly found the conductor sobbing uncontrollably. When asked what was wrong, Handel held up the score to the Hallelujah movement and said, “I think I saw the face of God”. While it may or may not have been the first time, this certainly would not be the last time someone was moved by this extraordinary piece.
On March 23, 1743, Handel’s Messiah was premiered in a charity event at the Music Hall of Dublin. In attendance that evening was King George II of Great Britain. When the Hallelujah chorus rang out, George II stood to his feet for the duration of the piece. It is recorded that, out of respect and loyalty for the king, the entire audience did the same. As a result, the tradition of standing during the Hallelujah chorus was born and is continued to this very day. Some argue that it was his gout that moved the king to stand at that precise moment to give relief to his feet and legs. But many say that it was his way of recognizing that even he, the king of Great Britain, was subject to the King of Kings, the Lord Jesus Christ. Undoubtedly, this event is a great lesson for all of us to consider. Though Jesus Christ came to this earth as a baby, He will one day return to this earth as King – and each one us should yield our lives to Him and recognize His authority over all things, including ourselves.
While history is a bit fuzzy at this point, most music historians agree that the Messiah became the basis and inspiration for another great Christmas carol we know and love. Lowell Mason, a Presbyterian music director in the 1800’s, took the words of Isaac Waats and a portion of the melody from Handel’s Messiah and wove them together. What came out of the merger of these two masterpieces is the carol we know today as Joy to the World.
As that song reminds us, the way for us to have true joy in this world, is to know the Messiah. How do we do this? The lyrics simply tell us, “Let every heart, Prepare Him room.” Jesus Christ, the Messiah was born to die so that we might live forever. This is God’s gift of Christmas to you and me. And the only appropriate response is to echo the words of Handel and exclaim, “HALLELUJAH!”