From Music and the Spoken WordDelivered By: Lloyd D. Newell
For more than 250 years, millions of people all over the world have marveled at the sound and majesty of George Frideric Handel’s sacred oratorio Messiah. Composed in a burst of inspiration in only 23 days, it was first performed as an Easter offering in the spring of 1742 in Dublin, Ireland. Since then, it has been performed thousands of times in every corner of the world, becoming one of the most popular pieces of music ever created.
But it almost didn’t happen at all. In 1741, the 56-year-old Handel had just suffered through a series of musical failures and had lost his royal patronage. Discouraged, he told his friend and collaborator, Charles Jennens, that he didn’t plan on doing any more composing that year. As one writer observed, “Even for prodigies moments of black depression and self-doubt arise, and... even geniuses cannot see the future.”1
But Jennens believed he could persuade his friend to try again. He had compiled a scriptural text with the hope that Handel would apply “his whole Genius and Skill upon it.”2
Fortunately for us, and perhaps compelled by the subject of the text, Handel set pen to paper. Maybe Handel felt he could identify with the Man of sorrows, despised and rejected, acquainted with grief.3. Perhaps he resonated personally—as we all do—with the message of Messiah: that the “great light” of hope shines for all who “walked in darkness.”4
For Handel, Messiah seemed to be a turning point of sorts, a new beginning, a fresh start. Although during his 74 years he composed many operas, oratorios, cantatas, and choral works, his name will forever be associated with Messiah. It is fitting, then, that near the end of his life, blind and in fragile health, Handel insisted on attending a performance of Messiah at Covent Garden on April 6, 1759.5 Handel died just eight days later, but his music will live forever.
1 Tim Slover, Messiah: The Little-Known Story of Handel’s Beloved Oratorio (2007), 21.
2 In Messiah: The Little-Known Story, 29.
3 See Isaiah 53:3.
4 Isaiah 9:2.
5 See Jonathan Kandell, “The Glorious History of Handel’s Messiah,” Smithsonian, Dec. 2009, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-glorious-history-of-handels-messiah-148168540.