In his book, Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, Patrick Kavanaugh describes German-born composer George Frideric Handel’s composition of his Messiah. An unpredictable composer at best, Handel spent most of his up-and-down career relentlessly moving from one failure to another. In those days, the bankruptcy option didn’t exist, and by 1741 he was overwhelmed with debt. Without a miracle, prison was obvious.
He decided to perform his farewell concert and retire a failure at age fifty-six. But when a friend, Charles Jennens, handed him a libretto based on selected scriptures from the Bible, everything changed. As Kavanaugh describes, Handel threw himself into writing and in a staggering stretch completed part one in only six days, part two in only nine, and part three in another six. He worked feverishly, driven by one overwhelming purpose. Servants left meals outside the door, afraid to disturb him. Once, when a servant did find the courage to open the door, the startled composer cried out, with tears streaming down his face: “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.”
He had just finished what would become known as the “Hallelujah” chorus.
Handel completed an astounding 260 pages of orchestration in only twenty-four days. During that process, he didn’t leave his house, and friends often found him sobbing with emotion. Considering the immensity of the work, some have considered it one of the greatest musical feats in history.
Messiah premiered in Dublin, Ireland on April 13, 1742, for a charitable benefit that raised enough money to set free 142 men from debtor’s prison. Poverty—the driving force that began the work—resulted in the freedom of others from the same fate.
A year later in London, the King of England attended a performance. As the first notes of the “Hallelujah” chorus began, he was so overwhelmed he rose to his feet, beginning a tradition that has continued for more than two hundred years. Its subsequent performances for charity did more to feed the hungry and transform the lives of the poor than any other single musical achievement.
Remarking about Handel in 1824, Beethoven said, “Handel was the greatest composer who ever lived. I would bare my head and kneel at his grave.”
What’s that one moment you’ve been waiting for all your life? How many times have you thought about giving up?
Throughout Handel’s career, even his commercial successes were usually followed by financial disaster. He was attacked by the church and many at the time felt little reason to believe his talent was worthy of any kind of legacy—until The Messiah. Handel had written many compositions over the years, but by far the one most people remember is that one big thing. Out of a past that was uneven at best, the creation of Messiah was a burst of creativity driven by the remarkable passion of a man who glimpsed his one real purpose.
It was as if he had been waiting his entire life for that moment.