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The Story Behind Handel's Messiah

George Friedrich Handel was very popular during his younger days. His operas were well received by the high society. But at the age of 56, his glorious days seemed to have faded into obscurity. He was in great debts, and his creditors were continually waiting at his doorsteps.

Handel was very depressed. Besides suffering from insomnia, he was also plagued by rheumatism. If he could not produce another musical hit soon, he would land himself in a London prison for not paying his debts.

Two letters brought hope to the elderly composer. They arrived in the summer of 1741. The first letter was from the Duke of Devonshire. He invited Handel to Dublin, the capital of Ireland, to produce a series of benefit concerts for the relief of the prisoners in several jails, and for the support of Mercer's Hospital in Stephen Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inn's Quay. Handel accepted the invitation for two simple reasons:

  • This trip might generate some incomes for him.
  • This was a good escape from all the harassments of his creditors, at least for a season.

Shortly thereafter a second letter arrived. It was from a wealthy but somewhat eccentric English landowner named Charles Jennens. In the past, Jennens had written some lyrics for Handel. Therefore, Handel opened Jennens' letter quickly without any hesitation. To his uplifting amazement, the letter was a compilation of some holy scriptures from both the Old and New Testaments.

As Handel read the verses over and over again, he was deeply moved. He felt impressed to put them to music in the form of an oratorio. (An oratorio is a musical composition, usually with a Biblical theme, for both voices and orchestra.) Handel locked himself in his study. Within 7 days, he completed Part I about the Birth of Christ. He pressed on to do Part II that focused on the Death of Christ. He completed the second section within 9 days. Part III was done in less than a week. It centred on the Resurrection and Coming Reign of Christ. All in all, the entire trilogy was scored in an incredible 21 days!

Handel brought his new composition to Dublin. The public came to hear it on April 8th, 1742 at its rehearsal. But the first official opening was on April 13th. It was a tremendous success. And the people loved it.

Handel lived for another 17 years. He conducted many performances of this great work. In fact, he died eight days after his last one. Charles Burney, an eighteenth century music historian, remarked that Handel's Messiah "fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and fostered the orphan."

Personally, my life has been changed by this awesome and prophetic opera. Each time I listen to these scriptures in song, my heart is overwhelmingly blessed. I have sung "Comfort Ye My People" on the streets of Jerusalem, and also at the outer wall of the synagogue at Waterloo Street to the Audience of One. I know that He is pleased to hear those words being sung by a full choir in a cathedral or the voice of one crying in the wilderness.

One day, all of us will join the holy angels in "The Hallelujah Chorus." All nations, peoples, tribes and tongues will stand and sing this one anthem, lifting up the name of the Messiah, praising and worshipping the King of kings and the LORD of lords! The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!