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Community & Business

15 December, 2022

Pastor’s Viewpoint - December 13

Uniting Church Gilgandra

By Supplied

Handel’s Sacred “Messiah”

Bankrupt and facing debtors’ prison, German-born composer, George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) was deeplydepressed. His oratorios, which had set sacred scripture to music, once attracted London’s Royal patronage, but their popularity waned in favour of comedic opera.

And his work was also the subject of mounting controversy from within the church. Clergymen and the Bishop of London, had ruled that any scripture performed in theatre was a blasphemy. It ignited Handel’s anger but, nevertheless, he found himself playing to empty theatres.

A devout Lutheran, Handel claimed he knew his Bible: “better than any bishop,” and delighted in the work of creating music to illuminate sacred texts. He said his richest edification came from reading the Psalms. But he was no saint. Having an irritable nature, he could swear in six languages! Now at his lowest ebb, a friend, Charles Jennens, gave him a set of lyrics taken from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Could Handel compose a musical score to suit?

Dublin Charities approached him, too. Could he compose a work for a benefit performance “for the relief of the prisoners in the several gaols, and for the Support of Mercer’s Hospital?” His commission would be generous. Yes. It was a gift from heaven. Initial inspiration grew into an obsession. Sequestered in his room, Handel worked tirelessly, skipped meals, and finished the massive work Messiah in only 24 days.

At the point of rounding-off the Hallelujah Chorus, his servant discovered him with tears in his eyes and he explained “I did think, I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself seated on His throne, with His company of Angels.”

Of the 259 page score, Part One; the story of Jesus’ birth, was achieved in only six days. Part Two; the story of Jesus’ death, in nine days and, Part Three; the story of Jesus’ resurrection, in six days. Finalising the orchestration took a further two days. It was an astonishing creative feat, by anyone’s standards.

The Messiah was a sensation. It premiered in Dublin’s Fishamble Street Musick Hall on April 17, 1742 to an over-capacity crowd in a hall normally accommodating 700.

“The demand for tickets was so great, men were asked not to wear their swords, and women to abandon their hoops in their skirts.”

This allowed a further 100 people to fit into the audience. The £400 raised by the concert, released 142 men from prison. A year later, Messiah was performed in London to a modest audience. King George II attended, and legend has it, that he stood at the opening notes of the Hallelujah Chorus, and the audience stood too. Later it was claimed, the King sprang to his feet to stretch his legs, but others say the “Christian King of England”, who is under divine authority, was so inspired, he stood in reverence of his Supreme Lord, the King of Kings… a tradition that continues to this day.

Handel always considered the Messiah an Easter piece but, since the 19th century, it is heard everywhere mainly at Christmas-time. He completed 30 performances of the Messiah before his death, but only once in a church — at Bristol Cathedral.

John Wesley attended and said: “I doubt if that congregation was ever so serious at a sermon, as they were during that performance.”

As the years progressed, the number of performers increased. The Handel Festivals staged at the Crystal Palace from the 1850s drew on 4000 singers and an orchestra of 500 musicians. The audience often numbered around 20,000 people.

In 1759, Handel died the day before Easter, and a friend noted: “He died as he lived — a good Christian with a true sense of his duty to God and to man”

Let Us Pray: “Heavenly Father ‘As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God,’ (Psalm 42.1) and we thank-you for the inspirational power of Handel’s music, that awakens our hearts and vitalises your Holy word. Thank-you for your love of humanity as seen through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension and, we remember afresh, that it was not nails that held Him fast to the tree… it was His love for us. Amen.”

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