Posts Tagged ‘Handel’s Messiah’



The musical notes appeared on the score as fast as he could draw them.

Melodies and harmonies not only filled his mind, they resonated in his soul. In fact, they consumed him. He ate little and barely slept. For twenty-four days he wrote.  And wrote.  And wrote.

The music maestro? George Frederic Handel (1685-1751).




The composition? Messiah.

Imagine the magnitude of composing such a lengthy piece in such a short time. My personal copy of the vocal score is 252 pages. That would mean Handel produced more than ten pages per day—not just a line of melody, but often four-part harmonies for twenty choral numbers AND orchestration for the entire piece. No doubt most of us would struggle to copy that much music, much less create it.

One of Handel’s biographer’s, Sir Newman Flower wrote, “Considering the immensity of the work and the short time involved, it will remain, perhaps forever, the greatest feat in the history of music composition.”

The idea for the oratorio actually originated with Handel’s friend, Charles Jennens. He was a librettist, a writer of operatic text. He and Handel had collaborated on three previous works.

Jennens wrote to Handel in 1741 that he wanted to create an anthology of scripture on the life of the Messiah. His idea was to tell the story of Christ, strictly through passages of scripture set to music. Jennen’s text included seventy-two verses.

Handel immediately became enthused about the idea. Perhaps he saw the potential for such a piece during an era when illiteracy was widespread and Bibles much too expensive for most people to own. This composition would teach the scriptures through music.

So he created the concept of oratorio: a musical composition for voices and instruments, narrating a sacred story without dramatic action or costumes.

Handel told Jennens it would probably take a year to compose all the music for so much text. But he finished in less than four weeks, never leaving the house during that time.

I can only imagine Handel’s euphoria as he sensed God’s inspiration of the glorious melodies and ingenious harmonies.

Upon completing the “Hallelujah” chorus, he turned to his servant with tears in his eyes. “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself,” he cried.

Sometime during those twenty-four days, a friend visited Handel and found him sobbing with intense emotion. Handel could not put into words the depth of his spiritual experience as he composed. Later he borrowed words from Paul (2 Corinthians 12:2), in an effort to recount the indescribable:



(“Whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote it I know not.”)

According to music scholar, Richard Luckett, the number of errors in Handel’s draft is remarkably small for a document of its length. Might that be another indication of divine inspiration?

Surely Handel realized that the music had not come from his creative abilities alone. At the end of his manuscript is the inscription: SDG—Soli Deo Gloria, which means “to God alone the glory.”

Because we often associate Messiah with Christmas, we may think the first performance occurred during Advent. But Handel intended the oratorio to be an Easter offering. The debut occurred on April 13, 1742—two hundred seventy-two years ago this Sunday. Handel conducted the performance himself.

A reviewer of that first concert wrote, “The sublime, the grand, and the tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestic and moving words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished heart and ear.”

That assessment has remained accurate through the decades, even till now.

For many years I sang in choirs that performed Messiah without knowing the story behind the oratorio.  Now, more than ever, I add my voice to Handel’s and millions across the years who proclaim, “Soli Deo Gloria–to God alone the glory,” for this magnificent piece of music.

I hope you feel the same.


(Sources:  www.beliefnet.com; http://www.thinkinaction.org; http://www.christians.com; http://www.christianity.com; http://www.patheos.com.)


(Photo & art credits:  www.prints.bl.uk; http://www.baroquemusic.org; http://www.izquotes.com.)








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