The following is a history of Handel and the song he composed.
HANDEL AND THE GIFT OF MESSIAH by Spencer J. Condie George Frideric Handel seemed to have been born a musician. As a young lad in Germany, he became proficient on both the violin and the organ. After composing his first opera in Germany, he moved to Italy, the operatic center of the world, to try his hand at musical composition in the Italian style. There he achieved some success in composing operas and chamber music. In 1711, at age 26, Handel decided to move to England, where his operas and oratorios initially gained acceptance. By the late 1730s, however, British audiences had become less enthusiastic about operas sung in German or Italian; instead, they favored comedic performances such as The Beggar’s Opera. Thus, for several years Handel struggled to keep the wolves—his creditors—away from the door. In 1737, after pushing himself to his physical limits by composing four operas within 12 months, the 52-year-old composer suffered a stroke, leaving his right arm temporarily paralyzed. A doctor told Handel’s faithful secretary: “We may save the man—but the musician is lost forever. It seems to me that his brain has been permanently injured.” The composer denied the diagnosis. Over time his body responded to treatment in the thermal springs at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen, Germany), and he recovered his physical strength. After testing his ability to play the organ at a nearby cathedral, he jubilantly proclaimed, “I have come back from Hades.” When he returned to London and resumed composing operas, his work was not well received, and creditors began to hound him again. In the depths of despondency, he began to wonder, “Why did God permit my resurrection, only to allow my fellow-men to bury me again?” In April 1741 Handel held what he assumed would be a farewell concert. His creativity was spent. A biographer wrote: “There was nothing to begin or to finish. Handel was faced with emptiness.” Late one August afternoon that same year, Handel returned from a long and tiring walk to find that a poet and previous collaborator, Charles Jennens, had left him a manuscript. This libretto quoted liberally from the scriptures, particularly the words of Isaiah, foretelling the birth of Jesus Christ and describing His ministry, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. The work was to be an oratorio. Given his previous failures, Handel was apprehensive as he began to read through the text. “Comfort Ye,” the rest words of the manuscript seemed to leap from the page. They dissipated dark clouds that had been pressing upon Handel for so long. His depression waned and his emotions warmed from interest to excitement as he continued to read of angelic proclamations of the Savior’s birth and of Isaiah’s prophecies of the Messiah, who would come to earth to be born as other mortal infants. A familiar melody Handel had composed earlier flooded into his mind as he read “For unto Us a Child Is Born.” The notes distilled upon his mind faster than he could put pencil to paper as he captured the image of the loving Good Shepherd in the aria titled “He Shall Feed His Flock.” Then came the overpowering exultation in the “Hallelujah Chorus,” followed by the soft, supernal testimony of “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.” The work came to its majestic conclusion with “Worthy Is the Lamb.” After all the music he had composed throughout his lifetime, Handel would eventually be known worldwide for this singular work, Messiah, largely composed in just three weeks during the late summer of 1741. Upon completing his composition, he humbly acknowledged, “God has visited me.” Those who feel the touch of the Holy Spirit as they experience the overpowering testimony of Handel’s Messiah would agree. At the end of our divinely ordained days, may we be able to acknowledge, with Handel, that God has visited us.