31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
December 4, 2016
Isaiah 40:5, 18-31
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
I want to thank Kyle, our music director, for suggesting we use Handel’s Messiah for our Advent theme. Not only are we blessed with hearing outstanding music, but I feel really blessed to have learned more about this amazing work, and I hope that you will to.
George Frederick Handel wrote Messiah, the most popular piece of choral music in the world, in twenty-four days.
In three parts, Messiah uses the Bible’s own words to tell the story of Jesus the Savior, the Messiah, the Christ. It begins with the Hebrew scripture prophecies of his coming, moves to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and ends “with the faith and hope of the redeemed, and the final triumph of the Messiah” as recorded in Revelations.
To read the scripture passages Messiah is based on takes 30 minutes, to perform Messiah in its entirety takes almost three hours. It is a beautiful work of music that has inspired many, including Beethoven, who is said to have copied every word and note of it in order to better absorb. Beethoven is even said to have quoted it upon his deathbed.
Even if you are not a musician, you have to marvel at the ability to write 19 choruses, 32 solos, and two orchestral pieces in twenty-four days. To have been that prolific, to have been that “in the zone”, you might assume Handel was at the very top of his game. And to have written such a beautiful and faithful work of music, Handel’s faith had to have been strong and deep.
Both assumptions would be very wrong though. Handel was never known for being a particularly religious person. Actually, Handel was known for being a man of excess. He had come to England from Germany, following his patron, Prince George of Hanover who would become King George I, and with him, Handel had brought his talent for writing Italian operas. The English loved Handel’s operas. According to a BBC documentary, Handel “pulled off an astonishing run of two dozen hit operas in just 15 years.” (Messiah at the Foundling Hospital)
But as Heidi Klum says in “Project Runway”, one day you’re in, the next, you’re out. In time, the English began to want to hear music in their own language, and they began to shun the lavishness of Italian Opera for simpler productions.
Handel’s fortunes were changing, and some say that in the spring of 1741, Handel gave what he thought would be his last performance. He was deeply in debt; his latest works had not been well received; and a few years before he had suffered a stroke that had left the four fingers on his right hand disabled and some said his mind in question. This was not a man deeply rooted in his relationship with God. This was not a man at the top of his game. Quite the opposite.
And it was at this point in his life, down in most every way, that Handel’s colleague and friend Charles Jennens sent him the libretto, the words, for Messiah. Jennens was a wealthy landowner with musical, literary, and religious interests. After sending the text of Messiah to Handel, Jennens wrote to another friend saying, “I hope [Handel] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other subject. The Subject is Messiah”. (The Peters Edition, edited by Donald Burrows, vocal score published 1972)
Charles Jennens hoped. He hoped Handel would bring his very best to this work. What did Handel hope? Could Handel even hope?
When we are walking in darkness, when we are depressed or desperate, when we face insurmountable obstacles, when our health is compromised, it is hard to hope. It is hard to have the faith to keep going and believe that our fortunes will turn around, that something better is waiting for us, that it will all work out.
When we are walking in the darkness, it is hard to have hope. Did Handel have hope? We will never know. What we do know is that in 24 days, Handel sat down and wrote this magnificent piece of music. Handel was known for being quick, but this was extraordinary for even him. He had written the music for Biblical stories before, but somehow, writing Messiah was different. Handel is remembered to have said “Whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote [Messiah] I know not.” “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.”
In writing of the Messiah, Immanuel, God with us, Handel experienced God, and it gave him hope, hope to face the challenges before him. Because it might surprise you to know that Messiah was not an instant and lasting success. This work that is the most popular piece of choral music in the world now, was not always so.
After writing Messiah, in an attempt to restyle himself as a philanthropist in addition to a composer and musician, Handel accepted an invitation to perform a series of concerts to benefit local hospitals in Dublin. It was here that he debuted Messiah, and his “experimental oratorio was an immediate triumph.”
But it was not a triumph with Charles Jennens, who had written the words. Jennens was furious that Handel premiered it in Dublin without even telling him, and astonishingly, Jennens thought that Handel’s music did not do his libretto justice.
Handel’s problems continued. In 1743, he planned the London premiere of Messiah at the Covent Garden Opera House. Before a single note of Messiah was heard, it was publicly denounced. The criticism was that an oratorio was an act of religion and should not be performed in a playhouse by a group of players. They were not fit ministers of God’s Word.
And after this one poorly attended performance, Messiah was barely performed after, seemingly falling into obscurity, and its composer into illness on the border of death.
Until! Handel had a brilliant idea. The Foundling Hospital, which cared for orphaned and abandoned children, had begun to make Christian charity more than an obligation; they had made it the in thing to do. They had turned themselves into a tourist attraction, a place to see and be seen, and so Handel approached their Board of Directors with a bold idea – a special charity performance of Messiah to benefit the Foundling Hospital. It was a win-win. The Foundling Hospital would get PR and potentially funds to support their ministry, and Handel hoped this performance would “brand his sacred oratorio as a musical good work”. (Messiah at the Foundling Hospital)
The concert was a sell-out, a total and utter success, establishing Messiah’s reputation as a “call to charity” and beginning its legacy as the piece of music that has probably earned more for charity than any other musical work in history.
The story of Handel and his Messiah is an extraordinary story, an extraordinary story of hope, of what can happen if we are faithful and persevere. Really, though, as so many extraordinary stories of hope are, it is the story of God, of how amazing God is. God is the everlasting Lord, “the Creator of the ends of the earth. [God] does not faint or grow weary; [And God] gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who hope for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:28-31)
Those who hope in the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall soar like eagles.
Hope. It is a powerful emotion. It helps us to have the faith to persevere, to continue walking forward, even when the path ahead seems dark and maybe even like a dead end. Hope is a powerful thing.
During Advent, we celebrate God’s gift of hope, God’s reminder that God will always be with us, Immanuel. We celebrate God’s hope and remember, that with God, all things are possible.
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall never overcome it. May God forever bless you with the gift of hope.