With our Come & Sing day fast approaching, I have been delving a little bit more into the history of the Messiah and that of its creator, Handel.
It’s difficult to know what to write exactly when there is so much information about Handel out there already, most of it far superior to anything I could add. On the other hand, I wanted to share some of what I’ve learnt for those of you who, like me, might only have a shaky knowledge and no time to start trawling through the internet to find out more. So music scholars look away now! Handel newbies or those wondering whether to come to the our next “Come & Sing Day”, featuring The Messiah, read on!
Born in Halle, Germany 1685, Handel wasn’t encouraged to study or play music at all by his family until a Duke overheard him play and advised his father to provide him with a musical education. After the death of his father in 1703, Handel first moved to Hamburg and later Italy where he composed and staged several operas. The popularity of his opera “Agrippina” led him to the employment of the elector of Hanover, which set him on the course of a such a close relationship with the German aristocracy and England that eventually he moved here. The rest, as they say, is history.
Germany or England?
Handel spent two years in England composing and staging operas, such as Rinaldo, at the Haymarket in London. Despite the success of Rinaldo, other operas were less popular and he was grateful for the patronage of Queen Anne who provided him with a £200 pension. However, her subsequent death and the Act of Succession, meant that Georg Ludwig of Hanover (Handel’s German patron) inherited the English throne and became King George I. This enabled Handel to remain in England, where he stayed for the rest of his life.
Operas, Oratorio and Other Works
While Handel, unlike Bach, was never a court composer as such, many of his most enduring works were written for royal occasions or people. His Water Music was composed for George I’s ride down the Thames, Music for the Royal Fireworks was written for George II to celebrate victory over France, and of course, the Coronation Anthems, of which, “Zadok the Priest” has come to be sung at every British coronation since. So much of this is immediately familiar to our ears, even if we don’t always know exactly where it has come from. Handel’s output was overwhelming: 42 operas; 29 oratorios; more than 120 cantatas, trios and duets; numerous arias, chamber music; church pieces; odes, serenatas and 16 organ concerti. But I think it would be fair to say that the one piece of music that everyone knows is The Messiah.
This moving and uplifting piece of music was composed towards the end of Handel’s life when the popularity of his operas was waning and his own health beginning to deteriorate. He had been invited to Dublin, a thriving merchant city where his music was still popular, and possibly the most crucial item in his luggage was the text for an oratorio by Charles Jennens: a libretto based on biblical texts of the Christmas story, Lent and the Easter resurrection and our ultimate redemption. Unbelievably, it only took him three weeks to write the music but the first performances were so popular that ladies were advised to take the hoops out their skirts to make room for more people in the audience! Funnily enough, Jennens never felt that Handel had done his libretto justice and even wrote that although “it was fine entertainment, not as good as he might and ought to have done”*. Despite initial criticism for presenting a religious work in a theatre, rather than a church, the Messiah went on to be performed successfully in London, including at charitable performances for the Foundling Hospital. It has even be said that Handel’s reputation was saved by the “massive successes of his dramatic oratorios Messiah (and Samson), the monumental power and beauty of which ensured that, at his death, he was mourned as a national hero.”
The Human Side to Handel
During my research for this blog, I have been struck by gems of information about the non-musical side of Handel’s life. A lack of letters and personal diaries mean little is really known but here are some things that caught my attention. He never married and lived in the same house on Brook Streat, Mayfair, for over 40 years. He was clearly passionate about his music and quality of performances, but his short temper also led to an almost fatal duel with fellow composer Johann Mattheson, and rows with his singers that even included threatening to throw one soprano out of the window! But he was also full of compassion and warmth: the ode he wrote in honour of Queen Caroline, “How are the Mighty Fallen” was described by her daughter as “the finest, cruel, most touching thing ever heard”*. Proceeds from many of his performances were given to charities such as the Foundling Hospital and he willed most of his wealth to his servants and charities.
“Go to him to learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means” (Beethoven). I don’t think I can put it any better than that! Alternatively, come to our “Come & Sing” Day on 26th January at Streatham Space to find out for yourself what makes the Messiah such an incredible piece of music for a choir to sing.
With thanks to the following for either direct quotes or paraphrasing: BBC Bitesize website: Matthew Boyden, “The Rough Guide to Opera”: Classic FM website; *Jane Glover, “Handel in London - The Making of a Genius” as broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and of course Wikipedia.