“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” The stooped man, who habitually shuffled through London at night, uttering these bitter words at the sight of a church towering out of the darkness, was George Frideric Handel, who had composed music for the English aristocracy and the continent, and had been showered with accolades by royal heads for thirty years.
But a long and severe illness, dishonest scheming of jealous rivals, and the death of his patron, Queen Caroline, had plunged him into misery. An icy winter also held England in its grip. And because theaters were not able to be heated, contracts were dissolved.
When Handel returned to his squalid apartment that night in 1741, he saw a sealed parcel on his writing desk. It contained a “Spiritual Oratorio” by the poet Charles Jennens, who in an accompanying letter asked Handel to begin setting it to music immediately. The master leafed through the text rather indifferently. But then it grabbed his attention and did not let him go again. These words began to grip him and would not let him go: “He was despised and rejected…He trusted in God…I know that my Redeemer lives…” and “Hallelujah!”
Handel sensed the old fire reigniting within, and celestial sounds raged within him. For twenty-four days, he worked as if in a daze, almost without rest and food. Then he fell, exhausted, onto his bed and slept like a dead man for seventeen hours. On his desk lay the score to the “Messiah.”
Because the work had lifted its creator out of the depths of despair like a miracle of God, Handel had all the proceeds donated to the poor. The premiere in Dublin was a huge success, and after this triumph, London was also eager to hear the work. Following the example of the King, all the listeners arose during the “Hallelujah” and reverently remained standing until the end.
On the evening of April 6, 1759, the already blind master attended a performance of his “Messiah,” which, until then, had taken place once a year. When “The Trumpet Shall Sound” began, he was afflicted by a weakness. Recognizing that his death was not far off, the seventy-four-year-old said: “I would like to die on Good Friday!” That wish came true. On April 13, the anniversary of the first performance of his “Messiah,” George Frideric Handel passed away.
J. von Luer