I’m reading 60 People Who Shaped the Church by Alton Gansky. The chapter on Handel was fascinating. This is a longer than usual quote but it is worth reading. Apart from King George II standing during the Hallelujah Chorus most of this was new to me. Enjoy!
“Despair was a familiar feeling for Handel; the roller-coaster ride that was his life had left him depressed and broke. Financial problems and constant criticism by the English church and be detractors who called him ‘that German nincompoop’ haunted him. In those dark days, his friend Charles Jennens came to visit. Jennens was a wealthy landowner and patron of the arts. He was also a librettist–a person who writes the text for operas or librettos. A devout member of the Anglican church, he had written a text he wanted set to music. The material was taken directly from the Bible and meant to show God’s work of redemption. Much of the material was from the Old Testament. He needed Handel to compose the music around the work. Over time Jennens and Handel would work on five oratorios, including the Messiah.
Handel received a second visit, this time from a charitable group wanting to use the oratorio to raise money to free men confined to debtor’s prison. Handel would receive a commission for composing the work.
The work consumed Handel, who locked himself away and worked night and day, scarcely eating. His production of the Messiah is the stuff of legend. He produced Part I in six days, Part II in nine, and Part III in another six. It took only two days to finish the orchestration. In those twenty-four days, he produced 260 pages of material. A traditional story has Handel saying to a servant after finishing the Hallelujah Chorus, ‘I did think I did see all heaven before me, and the great God himself.
Messiah premiered on April 13, 1742 in Dublin, where it was well-received and highly praised. Over seven hundred people attended. To make it possible to seat more, women were asked not to wear hoops in their dresses and men not to wear their swords. This allowed for the seating of about a hundred additional people. (Women stopped wearing hoops to concerts after this.) The first performance raised enough money to free over 140 people from debtor’s prison. It seemed as if Handel’s fate had turned.
London was a different matter. It took a year before Messiah would play in a major city, and when it did, it was panned by critics. To settle some controversy, Handel changed the title, which some thought was blasphemous, to A New Sacred Oratorio. King George II attended and stood at the singing of the Hallelujah Chorus. Of course, when the king stands, everyone stands. Historians debate why he did this. Some suggest the king, who had hearing problems, thought the national anthem was being played; others suggest he just needed to stretch his legs; still others say it was a spiritual statement. Whatever the initial reason, audiences around the world have been standing during the chorus ever since.
But it didn’t take long before Handel was playing to empty houses again, and he was on the brink of poverty once more. He would conduct thirty performances and only one of those was in a church–Bristol Cathedral.
Handel faced health issues, including strokes. Later in life he was hindered by cataracts. Despite surgeries to correct the problem, he eventually went blind. He died the day before Easter, April 14, 1759, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.” (pp. 208-9)