For some people, the Christmas season hasn’t begun until they’ve heard The Hallelujah Chorus of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. For others, all they know about The Hallelujah Chorus is that it plays when Clark Griswold finally gets his Christmas lights working on Christmas Vacation. Either way, both sides most often agree that it is a great piece of music.
George Frideric Handel was born in Germany in 1685. Even though he was a talented musician and composer, he flunked out of college. He moved to Hamburg, Germany when he was eighteen and began to write operas, but he was only slightly successful. In hopes of greater inspiration, he relocated to Italy and began writing oratorios, large-scale religiously themed musical works for orchestra and voices performed without costumes, scenery, or action. It wasn’t long before George became known as the most acclaimed composer in all of Europe. A few of the top composers in England suggested that he move to London to be near them for creative interaction. Handel loved the city, the language, and the English theater, so he took them up on their offer, moved to England, and became an official British subject in 1727.
George’s success continued in England. He was famous, rich, and powerful, at least for a while. Personal and financial issues began to plague him which impacted his work and his health. Before his 40th birthday, he suffered several strokes, was plagued by rheumatism, and began losing his eyesight. He went from living in riches in an extravagant home to lodging in a small home in a poor section of London.
At the height of his poverty, Handel was contacted by Charles Jennens, a wealthy eccentric, whose ideas were as unusual as his bank account was large. Jennens had an idea for a new oratorio based around the biblical teaching about Jesus, the Messiah. The scriptures inspired Handel. He locked himself in his study and worked night and day. In seven days, he wrote the Christmas section of Messiah. The second portion, known as The Redemption Story, took another nine days. The final section, called The Resurrection and Future Reign of Christ on Heaven and Earth, took a final seven days.
The first performance of Handel’s Messiah took place on April 13, 1742 in Dublin, Ireland. He was nearly blind, but could still tell that the crowd was extremely appreciative. A few months later, he brought his new oratorio to the London stage. King George II attended the second night of the performance. The king was so moved by the first few notes of the Hallelujah Chorus that he stood to his feet. Everyone else in attendance followed suit. When the piece ended, Handel couldn’t see the king or the audience standing, but he could hear the thunderous applause. He felt then that he had written a timeless classic, destined to help the generations celebrate the birthday of the King of kings.
Click here to hear the Royal Choral Society perform The Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah.
*Image courtesy of the Birmingham Museum Trust