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George Frederic Handel: Composer of Messiah

By Diana Waring

George Frederic Handel (1685-1759): The Kingdom of this world is become The Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ and He shall reign forever and ever "King of Kings and Lord of Lords". HALLELUJAH!

Have you ever thrilled to the glorious sound of the Hallelujah Chorus in Handel Messiah, and stood to your feet with the rest of the audience as the majesty of the heavenly realities washed over you through the power of this music? Or, perhaps you have been one of the chorus, singing with all of you might the truths portrayed musically in this masterpiece. If so, welcome to the international, centuries-old club of those who have been blessed by George Frederic Handel.

From the Dublin newspaper, 1742, when Messiah was first preformed: "Words are wanting to express the exquisite delight it afforded to the admiring crowded audience. The sublime, the grand and tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestic and moving words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished heart and ear."

From the Federal Gazette, of Pennsylvania, 1790, comes this review of Messiah: "In vain might we attempt to express the pleasing emotions which we experienced on this delightful occasion. Never were the charms of vocal and instrumental music more happily united. The soul, attuned to harmony, forgot for a moment its earthy fetters, and soared upon the wings of melody to its kindred skies. The heaven struck imagination was transported far beyond the limits of mortality" -- Just think: if not for a heavy-handed German duke we might never have heard Handel music. And if Handel had not been exposed to the warmly experiential knowledge of the Scriptures, during a revival known as Pietism, Messiah might not have been written!

Handel was born in Halle, Germany, the center of the Pietist movement, which breathed new life into the cold formalism of the 17th-century German Lutheran Church. Some biographies indicate that it was for this reason that George's parents and grandparents moved to Halle “for the love of pure evangelical truth.” His mother, Dorothea, was a devout and godly woman who sought to give her children a thorough grounding in the Scriptures. His father, George, a barber-surgeon, was considered one of the most renowned doctors in Germany.

Perhaps it was his father's practical outlook on life which made him plan a career in law for George, disregarding the boy's intense love of music. However, one day, when George was nine years old, he had the opportunity to play the church organ. The organist was amazed at the boy's obvious ability, and decided that the Duke needed to hear him. When this was arranged, and the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels heard the amazing sounds coming from the hands of such a young boy, he demanded of George's father that he should be trained in music. When George's father tried to explain that he wanted his boy to study law, the Duke rebuked him, "God gave him this talent; it is not for you to ignore it. Your son must be taught music."

How does one argue with a duke? There was no choice, really, but to get the boy a music teacher. And what a tremendously appropriate teacher was found. Friedrick Wilhelm Zachow was a gifted and imaginative composer/musician, well able to give his talented student a solid ground in the musical forms of the day, largely by copying the scores of other composers. It was this man who encouraged in Handel a vibrant intellectual curiosity and the freedom to create his on style. George studied organ, harpsichord (an early form of piano), oboe, and violin. When he was eleven, he wrote his first musical composition and became sufficiently trained on the organ to substitute for his teacher when necessary at the principal church in Halle!

When George was eighteen, he moved to Hamburg, which, through to medium of opera, was a center of musical vitality in Germany. He became a violinist in one of the opera companies, and within two years had written his first Opera, which was preformed at the Hamburg Opera House in 1705. With a budding reputation as a composer, Handel traveled to Italy, considered to be the center of the musical world in the 1700's. In January of 1707, is arrival in Rome caused a stir of interest. One Italian wrote, "there has arrived in this city a Saxon who is an excellent harpsichord player and composer of music who exhibited his prowess by playing the organ at St. John Lateran to the astonishment of everybody." Handel also studied and worked in Florence and Venice. The Italian audiences loved Handel and his music, usually greeting his performances with cries of "Viva il caro Sassone" ("Long live the beloved Saxon")

At age twenty-five, Handel became the Musical Director at the royal court of Hanover. He was often excused, however, to travel to London, where his operas were well received by the British public. In 1714, his German master, the Prince of Hanover, became King George I of England, which allowed Handel to make his stay in England permanent (though he was out of favor for having spent such a long time away from Hanover. Water Music, composed for the new king, quickly restored him to royal favor.)

Handel was someone who stood out in a crowd: he wore a white wig with curls flowing to his shoulders, he was a large man (his appetite was well-known), and he had a loud voice which interwove a German style of English with snatches of Italian and French. His temper, usually provoked only by temperamental singers, was legendary, but so were his generosity, piety, and sense of humor. When a friend unwittingly commented on the dullness of some music he had recently heard, Handel responded, "You are right, sir, it is pretty pore stuff. I thought so myself when I wrote it."

1741 was the watershed year in Handel's life. At the beginning of the year, he was at the lowest point of his career, having suffered tremendous financial losses, as well as severe physical ailments. However, in August of that year, a friend gave Handel a section of Old Testament and New Testament scriptures displaying the prophetic of Jesus Christ as the Redeemer of mankind and of His coming triumphant reign. The intention was that Handel might compose a musical oratorio for these God-breathed words. It is fascinating to consider that this was just the beginning of the Great Awakening in England, which, under the preaching of John Wesley and George Whitefield, brought the reality of God to the attention of the long-slumbering people. God's timing is always perfect!

Beginning August 22nd, and continuing for the next twenty-four days, Handel became so immersed in the Scriptures and the music that he hardly ate. His servants bringing food to him would often see him praying, staring into space, or sobbing. While he was composing the music to the Hallelujah Chorus, his tears were observed by an astonished servant, who saw them blotting the music as it was being written. A friend who came to visit while Handel writing the aria He Was Despised found him trembling and sobbing with intense emotion. Handel said later, "Weather I was in my body or out of my body as I wrote Messiah, I know not."

No one will ever know just what took place in Handel's rooms for those twenty-four days. All we have are the observations of his servants and friends and one comment from Handel himself. However, we can surmise that his music was being inspired by the very One who wrote the words, since the music seems to capture the very essence of the words and to propel them deep into our hearts. The power of this musical message, as it has been preformed by choirs throughout the world, has only grown greater through the centuries.

From Him and For Him That would express the underlying design of God in Handel's life. It was God who gifted him musically, it was God who inspired his greatest genius in Messiah, and it was for Him that Handel donated to charity most of the revenues generated by performances of this masterpiece - during the first performance, enough money was raised to release 142 men from debtor's prison! Handel's one desire, at the end of his life, was to die on Good Friday, in the hope of rejoining the good God, my sweet Lord and Savior, on the day of His resurrection. He died on Good Saturday, April 14, 1759, and was buried in Westminster Abbey in England.

Music is one of the eight intelligences we are considering in this series of articles. People gifted in this area are "Music Smart", and might display this intelligence in myriad ways, including vocal or instrumental music, composition and arranging, appreciating different styles of music, interacting rhythmically with music, humming or whistling through the day, performing or teaching. As we've seen from Handel's life, it is very important to allow students gifted in music to receive instruction from the best teachers available, and to support their endeavor as they blossom musically.

As a musician and a mother of three musicians, I can tell you that music is one of the greatest joys of our home! To hear the sounds of guitar, violin, piano, harp, drums, hammered dulcimer and vocals emanating from various parts of the house is to enjoy a bountiful buffet of auditory delights! Encourage it in your home and reap the rewards!! For more specific information and ideas on how to incorporate this intelligence into your homeschool, please refer to Eight Ways of Teaching by David Lazear, or In Their Own Way by Thomas Armstrong (a very secular book). For further reading about George Frederic Handel, I suggest these books: Messiah! A New Look At the Composer, The Music and the Message by N.A. Woychuk The Gift of Music: Great Composers and Their Influence by Jane Stewart Smith and Betty Carlson The Spiritual Lives of Great Composers by Patrick Kavanaugh

Bill and Diana Waring have homeschooled their children for more that 17 years. Their family business, Diana Waring “History Alive!”, produces books, tapes, videos and history curriculum for the homeschool market. Diana serves as HiStory Corner columnist for TOS Magazine, where she pens a column teaching history from a Truth perspective. The Warings sum up their ministry focus in their mission statement: "To encourage, equip, and educate families in an entertaining way." Diana can be reached for speaking or materials at or

Copyright 2003.
Originally appeared in Spring 2003. Used with permission.
The Old Schoolhouse Magazine.


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