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George Frideric Handel

Handel Composed Messiah, Featuring the 'Hallelujah Chorus'


George Frideric Handel

Circa 1750, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759).

Photo: Getty Images
George Frideric Handel is best known as the composer of the choral masterpiece Messiah, with its stirring "Hallelujah Chorus," but this musical genius was so prolific that his other works would fill 100 volumes.

Messiah was first performed in Dublin, Ireland in 1742. Over the years, Handel revised it so many times that conductors still argue over what the original sounded like. The libretto, or text of this concert piece, by Charles Jennens, is a series of sung Bible verses that cover God's plan of salvation, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for humanity's redemption, and thanksgiving for Christ's triumph over death.

Shortly after its composition, Messiah was performed near Easter, but it has since become a Christmas tradition in many cities. The "Hallelujah Chorus" has often been used in Christian movies during scenes of Christ's resurrection.

Handel the Composer and Performer

Even though George Frideric Handel was a child prodigy, writing musical compositions at the age of 10, his father almost pushed him into studying law instead of music.

Handel was born in Halle, Saxony, in Germany in 1685. His father, a barber and surgeon, died in 1697, but George Frideric Handel dutifully obeyed his father's wishes, enrolling in the university as a law student at the age of 17. In 1703, Handel moved to Hamburg and became a violinist and harpsichordist in the opera.

He befriended Hamburg composer Johann Mattheson, but the two quickly became rivals. During one opera, they argued over who would play the harpsichord, which resulted in a duel. Handel narrowly escaped death when Mattheson's sword point was deflected by a large button on Handel's coat. Later the two men reconciled and became friends again.

After a move to Italy in 1706, Handel was greatly influenced by Italian musical tradition. He visited England in 1710, stayed six months, then returned to his native Germany. He moved back to England in 1712, where he would have a 47-year career.

As with any stage production, operas were expensive to put together, and when English tastes changed, attendance dropped. Handel adapted, however, switching to oratorios, or choral works. These required no elaborate sets, costumes, or foreign singers. His more than 20 oratorios included several based on Bible stories, including Esther, Deborah, Saul, Israel in Egypt, Samson, Joseph and His Brethren, Judas Maccabeus, Joshua, Solomon, Susanna, and Jephtha.

Handel Overcomes Health Problems

Besides being a productive composer, George Frideric Handel was an overcomer. Health problems afflicted him in the second half of his life.

At age 52, Handel suffered a stroke which impaired his right arm. His nonstop pace had brought him to exhaustion. Retreating to Aachen, Germany, he recuperated while taking hot vapor-baths. Six weeks later he came back to London healed and began playing the organ once more.

To regain his financial footing, Handel poured his talents into oratorios and abandoned opera. A year after Messiah premiered, Handel had another stroke. This time he recovered even faster and launched into a series of major productions. About 1751, his left eye failed, then shortly after his right eye degenerated. By 1752 he was totally blind.

Yet he continued to perform. His powerful memory and personal drive allowed him to play concertos and compose music for several more years. George Frideric Handel died in 1759 at the age of 74. He had never married.

He was interred in Westminster Abbey in London, alongside other famous poets, artists, and dignitaries.

Handel Leaves a Legacy

George Frideric Handel was baptized a Lutheran in his native Germany but joined the Anglican Church when he moved to England.

Like many artists of his time, Handel was influenced by the king or queen in power. The puritanical bishop of London considered operas involving biblical themes blasphemous and even tried to prevent Bible-themed oratorios from being performed in theaters rather than cathedrals.

Still, Handel found patrons, attracted audiences for his work, and pressed on. He and his contemporary, Johann Sebastian Bach, were the two superstars of baroque music. Handel is credited with creating the dramatic oratorio form, a fusion of opera and his own imaginative genius.

Handel arranged many performances of his works for charities, including the Foundling Hospital in London. Today, 270 years after its creation, Handel's Messiah continues to thrill audiences throughout the world every Christmas season.

(Sources: gfhandel.org, baroquemusic.org, NNDB.com, and portlandhandelsociety.org.)

More Famous Christians in History

Jack Zavada, a career writer and contributor for About.com, is host to a Christian website for singles. Never married, Jack feels that the hard-won lessons he has learned may help other Christian singles make sense of their lives. His articles and ebooks offer great hope and encouragement. To contact him or for more information, visit Jack's Bio Page.

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