On February 23, 1685, the man whose music would forever inspire the world was born in Halle, Germany—ironically, to parents who would have seen him become a lawyer. But George Frideric Handel would quickly grow to be a famed composer and beloved musician.
By the time he reached his twenties, Handel was the talk of all England and Italy. Queen Anne had him commissioned as official composer of music for state occasions. Seats at his performances were often fought over, and his fame was quickly spreading throughout the world.
But the glory soon passed. Audiences dropped off; his popularity was eclipsed by newer talent. Financial ruin, failed productions, and festering stress took their toll on the musical giant. Weary from the strain of overwork and disappointment, Handel suffered an attack of a paralytic disorder that left his right arm crippled. At 52, the once famed musician was now seen as invalid and obsolete. “Handel’s great days are over,” wrote Frederick the Great, “his inspiration is exhausted.”
But sounds of the harpsichord soon reported otherwise. Not long after Handel withdrew to recuperate, his fingers were moved to play again and the artist set out to compose. Nonetheless, his next two operas were altogether unsuccessful. A charity concert he had promised to conduct in Dublin had become his only prospect for work. Yet, given a manuscript that included the opening lines from Isaiah 40, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,” Handel was stirred to write.
On August 22, 1741, at the lowest ebb of his career, George Handel enclosed himself in a room and set to composing Messiah. The entire oratorio was sketched and scored within three weeks. And on April 13th, 1742, the first audience in history resounded in applause to the stirring music of Messiah, conducted by Handel himself.
The composition would become his best known, and most beloved work, unsurpassed as sacred music. Taken from both Old and New Testament Scriptures, the work considers the entire human experience. Listeners are moved from creation and hope, to suffering and death, to redemption and resurrection. The work portrays the full range of human response to God, from holiness and hope to resignation and repentance, faith and triumph.
Ironically, the beloved Messiah enjoyed only moderate success while Handel lived, though he performed it annually each Easter for his favorite charity. In fact, he continued to conduct oratorio performances and revise his scores throughout the rest of his life, even in blindness the last 7 years. Of his lasting effect on humanity, a British historian once commented, “[Handel's] oratorios thrive abundantly—for my part, they give me an idea of heaven, where everybody is to sing whether they have voices or not.”(1)
Perhaps it is for this reason that audiences everywhere continue to stand in reverence to the last lines of his inspired work, words of inexhaustible inspiration, words befitting of a resurrected king—indeed, bone of our bone who has conquered no less than death:
For the Lord God, Omnipotent reigneth.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Horace Walpole in The Essential Canon of Classical Music, Ed. David Dubal (New York: North Point Press, 2001), 35.