He was finished, they said. Washed up. He’s had his day, and he’s done.
The year was 1740, and the man they were talking about was George Frederick Handel.
Everybody in London knew who he was — and was was the operative word. Handel had once been the toast of the town, a composer without peer. His operas had thrilled and astonished audiences in a town that was tough to astonish.
Handel, who had lived in England for more than a quarter of a century. had never really ruled the operatic circles of London. It is too tough of a town for that. But the German-born musical genius had led his faction, and they loved him for it. By the mid-1730s, however, Handel had begun to lose his grip.
The public’s appetite for Italian opera, Handel’s specialty, was waning, and his last few productions had not gone well. Handel had made plenty of money during his career, but the operas were expensive to produce. Handel was facing bankruptcy.
There was also the issue of Handel’s health. In 1737, at the age of 52, he suffered what was like a stroke and lost the use of his hands and arms for playing and conducting. His doctor predicted that his career was over. But Handel fought his way back from that and by 1740 was ready to compose again. By April 1741, Handel conducted what he — and just about everyone else — thought might be his last performance.
Four months later, Charles Jennens, a poet and former collaborator, handed Handel the libretto for an oratorio about the life of Christ. Handel had composed oratorios earlier in his career, and Handel realized they coming back into fashion,
Handel set to work on composing the music for the oratorio and kept at it night and day. He hardly ate and slept very little, if at all. Those who looked after him became concerned, even though he would often work in this furious, non-stop style.
Handel himself reported being overcome with emotion and joy at what he was creating.
Three weeks after he began, in September 1741, Messiah was a completed work. Handel premiered the work in Dublin the next April, and the audience response was enthusiastic. The Dublin Journal wrote:
Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crouded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.’
The London audience was cooler to the work when it was played there, but eventually Messiah found adherents and was recognized as a great piece of music. Today Messiah, especially its Hallelujah chorus, is one of the most popular and recognizable works in the history of music.
Handel composed other oratorios that were brilliant and well-received. One was Solomon, produced in 1749, which contains a sinfonia, Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, at the beginning of the third act that is still a favorite today.
Arrival of the Queen of Sheba
By the mid-1750s, Handel had gone blind and was generally in ill health. He died in London in 1759.
His music, even 250 years after his death, is hard to avoid.