Monday, December 19, 2005

An evening with Handel

Last Wednesday evening Stephanie and I attended a performance of Handel's Messiah by the Sydney Philharmonia choir and Sydney Symphony Orchestra in the Sydney Opera House.

Since then I have learned that when Handel composed this work in 1741 he was swimming in debt and it seemed certain that he would land in debtors' prison. On April 8 that year he gave what he considered his farewell concert as he felt forced to retire from public activities at the age of 56, going out only at night so that he could avoid his creditors. However, two things happened that would change his life. He was given a libretto based on the life of Christ by a wealthy friend, Charles Jensen, and he was commissioned by a Dublin charity to compose a work for a benefit performance.

He feverishly set to work, hardly leaving his room and rarely stopping to eat. In 24 days he composed the 260 pages of Messiah. It premiered on April 13, 1742, and raised 400 pounds for the charity and freed 142 men from debtors prison. A year later it was performed in London and attended by the King. As the first notes of Hallelujah Chorus
began the King rose to his feet in honour of his king ("King of kings"), and, following royal protocol, the entire audience stood, initiating a tradition that has lasted for more than two and a half centuries.

Handel went on to become a huge success. He was known for his generosity and concern for the suffering, donating freely to charities even in times when he faced personal financial ruin.

One of the amazing parts of the story is that Handel's greatest work was criticised by church leaders of the day. "Far too repetitive" apparently (I'm told that the word "Hallelujah" occurs more than 60 times in one chorus!) It's a strange irony that the contemporary Christian music criticised by one generation is praised by a subsequent generation as a classic.

You can read more of the story, and about Handel's religious convictions, here.

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