[House Church Talk] hoops and swords not allowed

David Anderson david at housechurch.org
Sun Jan 4 10:41:09 EST 2004

     The Story of Handel's Messiah 

One night in 1741 a bent old man shuffled listlessly down a dark London 
street. George Frederick Handel was starting out on one of the aimless, 
despondent wanderings which had become a nightly ritual. His mind was a 
battleground between hope, based on his past glories, and despair for the 
future. For 49 years Handel had written stately music for the aristocrats 
of England and the kings and queens had showered him with honors. But 
now, the court society had turned against him, jealous rivals put rowdies 
to breaking up the performances of his operas. Handel was reduced to 

Four years before, a cerebral hemorrhage had paralyzed his right side. He 
couldn't walk, move his right hand, or write a note. Doctors held out 
little hope for his recovery. Handel went to the Aix-la-Chapelle to take 
the healing baths. The doctors warned that staying in the scalding waters 
longer than three hours at a time might kill him. He stayed in nine hours 
at a time. Slowly, strength crept back into his inert muscles. He could 
walk, move his hand. In an orgy of creativeness, he wrote tour operas in 
quick succession. Honors were again heaped upon him.

When Queen Caroline, a stanch patroness, died, Handel's income was 
reduced. A frigid winter gripped England, and there was no way of heating 
the theaters, so engagements were canceled. As Handel sank deeper and 
deeper into debt, be lost his creative spark. Nearing 60, he felt old and 
hopelessly tired. Now as he walked alone on the London street, the facade 
of a church loomed dimly in the dark and he paused before it, bitter 
thoughts welling up in him. "Why did God permit my fellow men to bury me 
again? Why did He vouchsafe a renewal of my life if I may no longer be 
permitted to create? And then that cry from the depths: "My God, my God, 
why has Thou forsaken me?"

Hopelessly, he returned to his shabby lodgings. Entering, he saw a bulky 
package on his desk. He broke the Seal and clawed off the wrappings. So, 
a libretto: "A Sacred Oratorio."
Handel grunted, from the second rate, pampered poet, Charles Jennens. 
There was also a letter. Jennens expressed the wish that Handel start 
work immediately on the oratorio, adding: "The Lord gave the word." 
Handel grunted again. Did Jennens have the effrontery to think he was 
inspired by God? 

Handel was always helping unfortunates even when he could ill afford it, 
but he had a violent temper; was domineering and made enemies right and 
left. Why hadn't Jennens sent him an opera instead of this religious 
stuff? Listlessly, Handel leafed through the oratorio and a passage 
caught his eye: "He was despised and rejected of men... He looked for 
someone to have pity on him, but there was no man; neither found He any 
to comfort him." With a growing sense of kinship, Handel read on. "He 
trusted in God. ..God did not leave his soul in Hell. ..He will give you 
rest. The words began to come alive, to glow with meaning. "Wonderful, 
Counselor, I know that my Redeemer liveth ...Rejoice ...Hallelujah."

Handel could feel the old fire rekindling. In his mind wondrous melodies 
tumbled over one another. Grabbing a pen, he started writing. With 
incredible swiftness the notes filled page after page. Next morning, his 
manservant found Handel bent over his desk. Putting the breakfast tray 
within easy reach, he slipped quietly out. At noon, when he returned, the 
tray had not been touched. Followed an anxious time for the faithful old 
servant. The master would not eat. He'd take a piece of bread, crush it 
and let it fall to the floor-writing, writing all time while, jumping up 
and running to the harpsichord. At times he would stride up and down 
flailing the air with his arms, singing at the top of his lungs: 
"Hallelujah! Hallelujah! The tears running down his cheeks.

"I've never seen him act like this before," confided the servant to a 
friend. "He just stares at me and doesn't see me He said the gates of 
heaven opened wide for him and God Himself was there. I'm afraid he's 
going mad."

For 24 days Handel labored like a fiend, with little rest or food. Then 
he fell on his bed exhausted. On his desk lay the score of "Messiah" the 
greatest oratorio ever written. Handel slept as though in a coma for 17 
hours. His servant, thinking he was dying, went for the doctor. But 
before the doctor arrived, Handel was up and bellowing for food. 
Wolfishly he ate half a ham. He laughed heartily and joked with the 
doctor "If you've come for a friendly visit, I like it, he said, "But I 
won't have any of your poking over my carcass. There is nothing the 
matter with me." 

Since London would have nothing of him, Handel took "Messiah" to Ireland. 
The Lord Lieutenant had sent him a cordial invitation to come there. He 
would not accept a shilling for this work; the proceeds of its 
performance must go to charity. It was a miracle that had lifted him from 
deepest despondency; now let it be the hope of the world. In Dublin, lie 
merged two choirs and rehearsed the work. Excitement mounted as the date 
of the first performance neared. All the tickets were quickly sold and to 
make more room ladies were requested to come without hoops, gentlemen 
without swords. On April 13, 1742 crowds waited at the doors hours before 
the opening. The response of that first audience was tumultuous.

After that triumph, London was anxious to hear the work. And during the 
first performance a dramatic incident occurred. At the "Hallelujah 
Chorus" the crowd, following the King's example, surged to its feet and 
remained standing until the conclusion - a practice that has persisted to 
this day. While Handel lived he presented "Messiah" yearly, the proceeds 
going to the Foundling Hospital In his will he gave the royalties from 
this work to the same charity. Handel later was beset with many 
difficulties, but he never again succumbed to despair. Age sapped his 
vitality. He went blind. But his undaunted spirit remained to the last. 
On the evening of April 6, 1759, Handel was 74 - he was present at a 
performance of "Messiah". At the beginning of "The Trumpet Shall Sound", 
he felt faint and nearly fell. Those nearby steadied him. Friends helped 
him home and to bed. A few days later he said; I should like to die on 
Good Friday And on April 13, the anniversary of that presentation of 
"Messiah", true to his wish the soul of George Frederick Handel departed 
his body.

In "Messiah", Handel lit a torch that has been carried around the world 
to light the dark places of the earth as long as there are voices to lift 
in song, eyes to look to the hills, hearts to hope. 

Doron K. Antrim, Readers Digest 1948 

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