Composer George Frideric Handel was born in 1685 in Halle, Germany. This was a great year for the birth of composers: it was the same year Johann Sebastian Bach was born.
Handel was originally set to be a lawyer, but he loved music. He quickly showed his prowess as an organist and at composing, so he set off to be a musician. He spent some time traveling around Italy and then became musician for the elector of Hanover. Now, the importance of the elector of Hanover was that he was the heir to the throne of England, and when Queen Anne died childless, the elector of Hanover became King George I of England.
Handel moved with him to London in 1712. From then on, Handel spent the rest of his life in Britain, and so, though born in Germany and of German descent, he is known as an English composer. Under George I, Handel founded the Royal Academy of Music, which he directed for fifteen years. Early on in London, Handel composed for King George I his famous Water Music or, in Handel’s beloved German tongue, Vosser Musik. The first time Water Music was performed for King George, he loved it so much that he ordered it played again, and then he ordered it played again, so it debuted three times in a row in 1717.
After Handel finished his time at the Royal Academy of Music, he spent much of the 1730s writing operas. And then he set out to write what might be considered his magnum opus, the Messiah. Handel was, by all accounts, obsessed with work. We would say today that he was a workaholic. He poured himself into his work as a composer and as a musician.
Sadly, in 1751 he went blind, and in 1759, at the age of seventy-four, he died in London. He was buried in Westminster Abbey and, of course, the grand organ of the Abbey played and the choir sang his beloved Messiah. Handel once said, “I should be very sorry if I only entertained them,” referring to the people who listened to his music. He wanted people to not only be entertained but to be moved by his music, and that was certainly the case with the Messiah.
The Messiah was first performed in Dublin on April 13, 1742. It was performed the next year in London, and King George II was in the audience. When he got to the chorus for part 2, the “Hallelujah” chorus, King George II was so moved that he stood up. When the king stands, everyone else stands, and so the whole theater stood alongside of the king. And that started the tradition of standing during the “Hallelujah” chorus.
The Messiah has three parts. Part 1 begins with prophecies of the coming Messiah, from Isaiah and the Psalms, and takes us to the shepherds watching their flock at night on Bethlehem’s hillsides. Part 2 covers the passion, the suffering and death of Christ, and ends with the “Hallelujah” chorus. Part 3 picks up with Christ’s resurrection and continues with his ascension and what theologians call his present session and glory. Then it ends with the day of judgment to come as the Messiah, the King, comes in glory.
When Handel finished writing the musical score of the Messiah, he signed it SDG, Soli Deo Gloria.