Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Handel's comeback story and the background of his Messiah

It’s humbling to fail anytime, but approaching your sunset years, poor, in debt, with the prospects of going to prison for your remaining days ---- especially bitter to take.

That was the fate facing someone who would be remembered later as one of the greatest composers who ever lived: Handel himself.

Dark days in 1741 for him, age 56. His biblical dramas like Esther and Israel in Egypt competed with rival opera companies. It was an up and down career for Handel, but the downs were winning out. By 1741, he was deep in debt, overworking to get out, and losing his health as a result.

Back then, there was scant welfare, and no creation of fiat money to bail out broke governments and banks. You went bust, you paid for it by going to debtor’s prison. That prospect haunted Handel.

He was preparing for the worst. On April 8, 1741, he gave his farewell concert. He planned to retire from public activity. Then, seemingly out of the blue, two events converged. Handel had a wealthy friend who gave him a libretto based on the life of Christ. A Dublin, Ireland charity commissioned him to compose a work for a benefit performance – to help raise funds to release men held in, yes, debtor’s prison.

Handel could not turn it down.

So he went to work in his house on Brook Street, London. He started on August 22, and it was if a trance overtook him. He wrote Part One in just six days. Then Part Two, nine days. Then Part Three, six days. Orchestration, two days. Some 260 pages of manuscript had been produced in just 24 days.

The work: Messiah.

Handel realized he had never left his house in those three weeks. In fact, he had barely eaten. He had a visitor from time to time, one who reported seeing him sobbing with intense emotion. Later, to try to explain, he paraphrased apostle Paul: “whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote it I know not.”

The work had its first performance the next year, April 13, 1742, in Dublin as planned. The charitable benefit raised £400, enough to free 142 men. One year later, it was produced in London. The King of England himself was in attendance. When the Hallelujah chorus sounded, he rose. The entire audience was obliged to, as well, thus starting a tradition that has carried to this very day.

With this superb recognition, Handel’s fortunes turned for good. He remained in demand until his passing 16 years later. He personally conducted some 30 performances of his powerful work, often for charity.

One writer said: “Messiah has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan….” Another opined that no other musical work had so alleviated the suffering of man. Yet another said that no other work had done so much to convince listeners that there is a God, with mercy for all who believe.

Handel passed on to meet the one of whom he wrote April 14, 1759, Easter Saturday, as it turned out. Some 3,000 attended his funeral in Westminster Abbey, where the greats of England were laid to rest. There a statue of Handel shows him holding the manuscript, Part Three, which begins with the solo, “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”

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