George Frederick Handel was a native of Germany and spoke with a German accent all his life. Most of that life, however, was spent in London, England. As a young musician, Handel’s sponsor was the Elector of Hanover. Later on, when the Elector became King George I of England, he continued to sponsor Handel.
The young Handel went to Italy to study opera. Opera had become a very fashionable entertainment for the upper classes. Handel traveled to England in 1711 and made an immediate success with his operas. Queen Anne granted him a royal pension for life in 1713. Because of this initial success, Handel tried to start a permanent opera company in London. But this failed and Handel lost money.
Since operas used full stage settings with costumes, scenery and props, they were expensive to produce. Handel decided to produce oratorios in which the parts were simply sung without actions.
On August 22, 1741, Handel began to work on his oratorio “The Messiah.” The text was made up of passages from the Bible relating to the birth, life and death of Jesus. Handel worked on it feverishly, missing meals and going without sleep. He finished it twenty-four days later. When he was asked how he felt on completing it, Handel said, “I thought I saw all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.”
In the fall of 1741, Handel received an invitation from the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland to present operas and concerts there. Handel traveled from London to Dublin with his entire luggage and many of his singers. However, in order to rehearse on the way, he had to hire local people to fill in. Once, the composer soundly criticized one local singer who failed to meet his standards.
Handel was warmly received in Dublin, where his concerts were sold out. Even his rehearsals were considered newsworthy by the local papers. “The Messiah” was first publicly performed on April 13, 1742. Seven hundred people squeezed into a 600-seat theatre to hear it. A notice had requested that ladies attend in hoopless skirts, and that gentlemen come without their swords. A Dublin paper reported, “Words are wanting to express the exquisite delight it afforded to the admiring crowded audience.” All proceeds were donated to charity, as the church choirs had refused to participate except on those conditions.
Handel returned to London in August 1742 and prepared the oratorio for the London stage.
“The Messiah” made its London debut on March 23, 1743, with King George II in the audience. It was during the Hallelujah Chorus that the King jumped to his feet and so initiated a tradition that has lasted ever since.
With such oratories, Handel was able to re-establish his popularity and restore his finances in London. “The Messiah” continued to be performed. After conducting it on April 6, 1759, the old composer collapsed and had to be carried home. He died eight days later.
“The Messiah” remains Handel’s most popular work, combining wonderful music with inspiring religious sentiments. The Biblical text speaks of hope and salvation, and the music allows the text to soar into angelic songs.