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More Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas
By Ace Collins
ZondervanCopyright © 2006 Andrew Collins
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHandel's Hallelujah Chorus
The "Hallelujah Chorus" is arguably the most powerful piece of music ever written. Though its lyrics are sparse, its meaning is monumental. These powerful words, coupled with one of the most awe-inspiring pieces of music ever penned, put an unmistakably and unabashedly spiritual exclamation point on each Christmas season. This song now reverberates so strongly during the holidays that for many, Christmas does not begin until the "Hallelujah Chorus" has been performed. It is at that moment, when the first hallelujah is delivered and people rise as one to their feet, that the true meaning of Christ's birth is again joyously proclaimed by his people.
Yet there is an irony in the belief that it can't be Christmas without Handel's most famed composition. The song itself was never intended for a Christmas audience. It was originally considered to be an Easter offering. And, to make this story even more unbelievable, when he composed his most famous work, the great George Handel was a washed-up has-been, a frail forgotten man living in abject poverty. While penning what is now widely thought of as the world's most dynamic musical salute to the birth of the Savior, Handel essentiallywas reborn himself.
The great composer was born in Halle, Germany, on February 23, 1685. Though a gifted musician, Handel actually flunked out of college. Moving to Hamburg at eighteen, he began to write operas. He was only modestly successful there, so in 1706 he relocated to Italy. Inspired by the country's history, within three years a reenergized Handel composed two oratorios that were praised by both music critics and the public. Suddenly, George was a local star, the "king of the oratorios."
Few modern songwriters devote their talents to creating an oratorio, but Handel loved these sacred musicals. Oratorios were essentially dramatic musical presentations of biblical stories written for choruses but featuring strong soloists in the production's most important segments. Created to provide moral lessons along with classical entertainment, oratorios closely resembled opera without costumes or staging. Inexpensive to produce and easy to understand, the productions were popular with both common people and the elite. Most important to Handel, they offered him a chance to succeed while also reflecting his convictions.
Handel was a man of deep faith. He prayed often and studied his Bible. He believed that his talent and inspiration came from God. He saw his music as a tribute to his Lord. Even at twenty-five, the composer showed true humility for having realized his goal of providing musical vehicles for the furthering of his faith. In the process of following his calling, Handel had also become the most acclaimed composer in Europe.
The top musicians in England sent Handel an invitation to join them, and the composer answered. The composer loved the modern city of London, believed English theater to be the world's best, and felt inspired by the progressive thinking he found in the nation. Yet more than just the environment of what was then the world's greatest city, Handel loved the English language. He felt his prose worked best in the tongue of King James.
In his adopted home, the German-born dynamo reached beyond the oratorios that had made him a star and began to compose church and secular music, instrumental pieces, operas, and new arrangements of classical works. His work propelled him to the top of his field, and he was made the director of the Royal Academy of Music. Now the most famous musician in England, he had money, power, and respect. Yet his world was hardly perfect. Behind the scenes, a lingering shadow began to haunt the still-young man. It was a demon he could not fight, eventually bringing him to his knees and causing him to question himself, his talents, and his faith.
Even as he ruled the entertainment world, Handel physically began to fall apart. Before he reached forty, he suffered several strokes and was all but crippled by rheumatism. By 1741, his eyesight had failed as well. The world which had once been in such sharp focus was now little more than a blur. Legally blind, barely able to walk, Handel also lost his creative powers. Desperate, the depressed composer spent his savings trying to find cures for his various illnesses. He even paid a surgeon for a crude and painful eye operation. Nothing worked, and with no income from writing, directing, or teaching, Handel went from riches to poverty. Locked in a tiny home on the wrong side of London, he feared his final stop on this earth would be a debtor's prison.
With so many bills due and no way to pay them, the composer dreaded the knock of the mailman. What almost always came were not greetings from old friends but rather duns from bill collectors. But one warm day in August 1742, the mail brought a double dose of good news.
Opening the first envelope, Handel discovered that the Duke of Devonshire wanted the composer to come to Dublin and produce a series of benefit concerts "for the relief of the prisoners in the several goals [jails], and for the support of Mercer's Hospital in Stephen Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inn's Quay." Anxious to get away from his depressing home, Handel immediately jotted off a note accepting the Duke's offer. While this first letter seemed like an answered prayer, it would be the second that would change not just Handel's life but the musical world and Christmas itself.
Charles Jennens was a wealthy eccentric whom most folks avoided. Those who knew him labeled his behavior as bizarre. He always seemed to have a new idea to do something a bit differently than anyone had ever done it before, and none of those ideas ever panned out. He seemed to think he had the answer for reorganizing local government, for the redistribution of taxes, or for how children should be properly raised to prevent them from falling into a life of crime. If he heard a sermon, he found ways he would have presented it that were more profound and far-reaching. In fact, he even dared to suggest that Shakespeare's work could be improved. So any letter from Jennens would have been dreaded by most who knew him. Few would have bothered even reading the note, but Handel opened the envelope with a rare zeal for a sick man. His enthusiasm was fueled by the memory of some outstanding poems Jennens had sent him some years before. Maybe, the composer thought, the man had done it again!
Jennens' letter did not contain any original work, but the unique man had developed an idea for a new oratorio. He had started to write it himself but had hit a wall. Remembering Handel's earliest hits, Jennens opted to forward the concept to the composer, hoping it might be a source of inspiration. Little did the man know that the great Handel would not only read his letter but see the potential in its contents.
As he explained in the letter, Jennens had taken what he felt were the most important biblical stories centering on the Messiah and cut them down to what he viewed as the bare-bones essential passages of Scripture. His goal had been to create a new musical presentation from his text, but Jennens simply did not have the talent to start the oratorio, much less complete it. Maybe, he thought, old George would be interested.
Hallelujah! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth. The kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever. King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, and He shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah!
Excerpted from More Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins Copyright © 2006 by Andrew Collins. Excerpted by permission.
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