Last week, during a long car ride, I listened to Baroque instead of rock: Handel’s Messiah in its entirety. It was a pleasure. This is truly divine joy. I was reminded of Stefan Zweig’s “10 Historical Miniatures”. He wrote about special moments in human history, including the creation of Georg Friedrich Handel’s fantastic oratorio. For those who do not know this essay, here’s an insight into the history of the creation of this exceptional musical work. But first let’s listen:
The lyrics of this song are a prophecy from Isaiah:
“For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. “The Bible, Isaiah 9:5
13. April 1737: Handel is financially and physically exhausted
13. April 1737: Georg Friedrich Handel, 52 years old, collapses with a stroke. His doctor, who was quickly summoned, blamed it on the composer’s long-standing streak of bad luck. He had already written four operas this year, but they were all flops. This plunged him into a debt crisis. All his savings were gone and creditors were after him. He escapes with his life, but is paralyzed, without strength, and above all: his will to live had deserted him. Stefan Zweig says: “He couldn’t walk, he couldn’t write, he couldn’t make a single key sound with his right hand. He couldn’t speak, his lip hung crooked from the terrible tear that had gone through his body, he just slurred and… The word muffled out of his mouth.”
1738-1740: Recovery and psychological breakdown
During a spa stay in Aachen, Germany, Handel recovered and composed further works, but “as early as 1740, Handel felt like a defeated man again.” His work was not very successful and he was in financial trouble again.
21. August 1741: The day that changed Handel’s life
Handel receives a package from his poet friend Jennens with a new poem. It consists of three parts, parts 1 and 2 with quotations from the Old Testament, part 3 from the New Testament. Stefan Zweig puts this event into poetic words (we don’t know whether it happened exactly like that):
Handel pushed the lamp closer to the written pages. “The Messiah!” was on the first page. Oh, another oratorio! The last ones had failed. But restless as he was, he opened the title page and began. He jumped at the first word. “Comfort ye,” is how the written text began. “Take heart!” – it was like magic, this word – no, not a word: it was an answer, divinely given, an angelic call from a clouded heaven to his despondent heart. “Comfort ye” – how this sounded, how it shook up the frightened soul, creating word. And already, having barely read it, barely felt it, Handel heard it as music, floating in tones, calling, rushing, singing. Oh luck, the gates were open, he felt, he heard the music again!
His hands trembled as he turned leaf after leaf. Yes, he was called upon, every word gripped him with irresistible power. “Thus says the Lord” – “Thus says the Lord!” Was this not said to him and him alone, was this not the same hand that struck him to the ground, that now lifted him up from the earth in bliss? “And he shall purify” – “He will purify you” – yes, this happened to him; The darkness was suddenly swept away from the heart, brightness had broken in and the crystalline purity of the sounding light.Stefan Zweig: Historical miniatues; Georg Friedrich Handel’s Resurrection (1943, public domain)
We are no longer used to this poetic language today, so I will continue with my own words. Handel was moved by the biblical quotations in the poem; they spoke to him personally. He immediately got to work. He composed, sang, sat down at the harpsichord, continued to write and was completely absorbed in his work. On September 14th, after just 24 days, the mega-work was completed.
13. April 1742: Premiere of Handel’s Messiah
What a time! Stefan Zweig writes:
“The ladies came without crinolines, the cavaliers without swords, so that more listeners could find space in the hall; seven hundred people, an unprecedented number, crowded in.”
The performance is a complete success:
King George II stood up moved during the Hallelujah chorus and only sat down again when the last note had faded. A custom that his subjects still follow today, otherwise they only rise when the national anthem is played.Kölnische Rundschau 13.04. 2009: Unbridled Genius
Handel donated the proceeds to the care of debt prisoners and hospitals for the poor, and in all further performances of the Messiah he also gave up the money in favor of people in need.
13. April 1759: Handel dies
Yes, what else is left to say? Three times on April 13th, those were fateful days for Handel. Blinded and at the end of his strength, “what had been mortal about George Frideric Handel finally died.” (Again based on Stefan Zweig.)
What remains? Handel’s Messiah has been translated into more than 20 languages and is one of the best-known and most frequently performed oratorios in music history.
If you want, you can listen again at the end, this time we’re listening to “And the Glory of the Lord”: Youtube Link to Handels Messiah: And the Glory of the Lord
For further listening
- Haendels-messias: Andreas Winkler