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Thursday, April 07, 2005

Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers: Honoring Handel

In a small London house on Brook Street, a servant sighs with resignation as he arranges a tray full of food. he assumes will not be eaten. For more than a week, he has faithfully continued to wait on his employer, an eccentric composer, who spends hour after hour isolated in his own room. Morning, noon, and evening the servant delivers appealing meals to the composer and returns later to find the bowls and platters largely untouched. Once again, he steels himself to go through the same routine, muttering under his breath about how oddly temperamental musicians can be. As he swings open the door to the composer's room, the servant stops in his tracks.

The startled composer, tears streaming down his face, turns to his servant and cries out, "I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself." George Frederic Handel had just finished writing a movement that would take its place in history as the Hallelujah Chorus.
This excerpt comes from a book kindly given to me by a member of our Stake Presidency, Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers by Patrick Kavanaugh (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996 - the excerpt is from p. 27). I've been impressed with some of the spiritual aspects of many great composers. Quite a few lived rather disappointing lives, of course, but even they had their moments of religious contemplation and even fervor.

The spirituality of Handel, Bach, and Mendelssohn especially impress me - how wonderful it will be to meet them after the Resurrection.

Handel, for example, was a great but humble man who had struggled to overcome one failure after another. Eventually, in 1741, he was swimming in debt, in poor health, and facing debtors prison. But at that dark time, he was blessed to get a commission from a Dublin charity. Further, a wealthy friend gave him a libretto about the life of Christ, with the text taken entirely from the Bible. He began working on the music and became wholly absorbed in the project, producing 260 pages of manuscript in 24 days - achieving something that I think can be fairly compared to the output of Joseph Smith in translating the Book of Mormon. Some have called it the greatest feat in all of musical composition. He simply called the composition Messiah. Handel's work clearly had the signs of being driven and guided by inspiration from Heaven. He wrote to a friend about his experience composing it and quoted Paul: "Whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote it I know not."

Handel finally came into some money after the huge success of the Messiah. But the proceeds were largely for charity. It premiered April 13, 1742, as a charitable benefit, raising 400 pounds and freeing 142 men from debtors prison. Handel conducted many of the performances during his life, raising large sums of money to support the Foundling Hospital and to help the poor in many ways. How fitting that a piece called Messiah should so powerfully continue the work of the Messiah Himself, while also bearing testimony of Him.

4 comments:

Brian Duffin said...

I love the story of Handel and the writing of the "Messiah". Our ward choir performed a piece at Christmas time that told the story of Handel and other great composers. Probably the best Christmas performance (short of the "Messiah" itself) that I have yet heard. Thanks for posting the information. I love your blog!

danithew said...

I was recently reading 1 Nephi chapter 1 and became intrigued by the way the word "Messiah" is used in the scriptures. It is simply interesting to me that right away in the very first chapter of the Book of Mormon, this word is used.

I then found that the KJV Old Testament only uses the word "Messiah" twice, which I thought was odd (it appears many more times in the BOM). Then again, though I need to check this out, it may be that the Hebrew word for Messiah is being translated into English as "anointed."

Regardless, the Hebrew scriptures certainly prophecy that there will be a just judge who will come and make things right, who will even lead animals to live in peace with one another, etc. There are incredible prophetic chapters that make this clear and thus the Jewish hope for this great person to come.

Anyway, I'm wondering if in the Church we might need to utilize and appreciate this word more.

I'm really grateful that Handel was so inspired and that he would compose such beautiful music with scriptural words as the lyrics. What an amazing gift to the world.

Mormanity said...

I agree that we as a Church need to do more to understand and appreciate the role of the Messiah, and the beautiful Messianic prophecies in the scriptures. There is so much depth that we have not yet tapped.

Among our Jewish brothers and sisters, I also fear that the concept of the Messiah seems to have been somewhat forgotten or diluted. I don't mean to pick on this great religion in so saying, but I am saddened to see that Messianic prophecies seem to get little attention, at least among the Jewish people I am most familiar with (not Orthodox). I hope that will change.

Let us lead the way in preparing for the return of the Messiah in understanding His words and the prophecies about Him. I especially recommend Isaiah in this regard. Indeed, it is the Messiah who told us in the Book of Mormon that "great are the words of Isaiah."

danithew said...

There is a Jewish joke/anecdote that helps to show how many Jewish people feel:

In a small Russian shtetl, the community council decides to pay a poor Jew a ruble a week to sit at the town's entrance and be the first to greet the Messiah when he arrives. The man's brother comes to see him, and is puzzled why he took such a low-paying job. "It's true," the poor man responds, "the pay is low. But it's a steady job."

You can find this story in Rabbi Telushkin's collection on the topic of Jewish Humor.