George Frideric Handel and His Messiah: The Perfect Holiday Collection
Comfort ye, my people.
Sayeth your God,
Sayeth your God...
Isaiah 40, KJV
And so begins one of the most readily identifiable Christmas collections on record. It is not a collection in the tradition of collections of familiar carols, hymns, and plainchant. It is a cogently assembled collection of prayers and scriptures, set to music and combined for a specific reason for a specific audience. Since its first performance in Dublin on April 13, 1742, there has scarcly been a year when the famous oratorio has not been performed.
This monumental composition is, of course, George Frideric Handel's Messiah.
Both the composer and oratorio have a colorful history worthy of some descripion, as all larger-than-life things do. Handel's professional life begins with an old joke:
George Frideric Handel was a Saxon who moved to England to produce hot-blooded Italian Opera, went broke and rebounded with pious religious oratorio.
That is the definition of a cosmopolitian, entrepreneurial man. In his salad days, no other composer was more celebrated. Where his contemoprary, JS Bach, would have been considered provential, having never left his native Germany, Handel was international, living large in Germany, Italy, Ireland, Englandhis remains are interred with honor in the vernerable Westminster Abbey.
Putting Handel into perspective is a writer's challenge. A great deal has been written about Handel, but little is known of his closely-guarded personal life. Quoting New York Times classical music critic Harold C. Schonberg who, in his book The Lives of the Great Composers, said of the Composer and Impresario:
"George Frideric Handel: a big man and a lusty one; a naturalized British subject who spoke English with a heavy accent; a man with an explosive temperment and with all a sweet-tempered and even generous philanthropist; a man who made and lost fortunes in this musical enterprise; the owner of a good art collection, including some Rembrandt paintings; one of the greatest organists and harpsichord players of his day; a man with a simple uncomplicated faith and an equally simple uncomplicated view toward life."
That is a guy I would have like to have known.
Larger Than Life
Handel, the big burly Saxon, tactless and domineering, detonated like an atom bomb, fully formed, into an English Age of the Enlightenment society that encompassed the likes of Alexander Pope, John Gay, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, and Isaac Newton. It was the age of the first tabloids, the Tatler and the Spectator, of scientific advancement mathematically redefining nature, and of a beautiful assembly of wits, literary figures, eccentrics, nobility, perverts, pederasts, poets, essayists, and politicians. Magically drop St. Paul into the mix and the Apostle would have mistaken eighteenth century London for first century Corinth. No artist today can boast the same notoriety and creative environment as Handel.
The composer's "explosive temperament" is best illustrated in his famous sword duel with Johann Mattheson over Mattheson's demand to take over the harpsichord from Handel during a performance of Mattheson's opera, Cleopatra. The two composers had words, decided to take it outside, and drew swords. During the spar, Handel's coat button deflected what would have been a fatal blow from Mattheson's blade, knocking both men to the ground. The two composers arose, smiled and embraced and went their merry way.
That was George Frideric Handel.
It was this same George Frideric Handel, impetuous and impulsive by nature who, while listening to the great Italian violinist Archangelo Corelli slay one of Handel's compositions, grabbed the violin from the greatest virtuoso in Europe and demonstrated the proper way to play the piece. A sweet natured and generous man, Corelli replied "Mi Il caro Sassone, this music is in the French style, of which I have no knowledge."
Mi Il caro Sassone, My Dear Saxonthis is how the bigger than life Handel was thought of by those he did not manage to insult or offend (and many that he did). Il caro Sassone also had the reputation of possessing sweet temperment and generosity. These traits are no better displayed than through his bequeathing the complete score and vocal parts from his greatest oratorio, Messiah, to an organization dedicated to helping poor children, helping sustain this organization to this day.