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Betty Stone: Handel’s ‘Messiah’ — a tradition is born


Betty Stone



You think you have problems? Consider poor George. He had enjoyed the status of a rock star, tops in his field. He was so musically gifted that his interest in music had developed before he learned to read. Although he had flunked out of college, he had become a hero in the world of music. 


Now, however, at 56 years of age he was a has-been and almost forgotten. He was in a deep depression, not only worried about being


Yes, that''s right, debtor''s prison, which was in effect in London when George Frideric Handel lived there in 1741. A native of Germany, he had written two operas and enjoyed mild success at home before moving to Italy in 1706. There he discovered the genre that would make him famous.  


The oratorio was much like opera. It told a story without staging and costumes. It also sometimes expressed a moral. It was comparatively inexpensive to produce. You might say the opera was similar to our Broadway musical today, and the oratorio was like a concert. Leading composers, directors and performers enjoyed star status. 


Handel had a gift for composition. His oratorios stood out. He drew the attention of some of the best-known members of the Italian royal family, and, by the age of 25, had become internationally famous. He migrated to England and almost immediately became famous there, even becoming director of the Royal Academy of Music. 


Difficult period 


In time, however, Handel''s health betrayed him. In 30 years he had plunged from the pinnacle of success to rock bottom. He dreaded the mail, which usually brought only notices from his creditors, demanding payment. But one day his old friend, the Duke of Devonshire, sent him a welcomed letter, inviting him to produce a series of benefit concerts in Ireland. Handel accepted. 


About the same time he received a letter from another friend, a rich eccentric named Charles Jennens, who was known for having foolish ideas few people appreciated. Handel, however, had no ideas. He was intrigued by Jennens'' suggestion of using New and Old Testament stories of Christ for an oratorio. The idea was inspiring. 


On August 22, Handel locked himself in his study. In the following 24 days, he completed what would become the most familiar oratorio ever composed and one of the most beloved spiritual pieces in the world, "Messiah."  


The following April, Handel conducted the oratorio for its initial presentation in Ireland before a large audience. He was too blind to see the audience, but he could tell by the applause that he had a huge success. 




A royal endorsement 


A few months later, Handel took his "Messiah" to London, where it was performed before large audiences. The night of the second performance was the occasion when King George II stood when he heard the "Hallelujah Chorus," and the audience followed suit, starting the tradition of rising for this song to this day. 


During the 1820s, English music festivals revived the oratorio, and "Messiah" quickly became a favorite again for both Easter and Christmas. Ace Collins writes, ("Messiah") "does more than arouse the intellect; it takes root in the soul." He concludes, " ... through Handel''s ''Messiah'' we can sense a bit of the awesome power and glory that illuminated the first Christmas and that continues to magnify the birth of Jesus today." 




Performance in Columbus 


This year marks the 250th anniversary of Handel''s death. His "Messiah" will be presented once again in Columbus, organized by James Allen and his daughter, Elizabeth Swartz, and conducted by Doug Browning.  


The performances by a chorus of singers from this area and orchestra will be Tuesday, Dec. 8, at 6 and 8 p.m. in the beautiful Catholic Church of the Annunciation. Admission is free, but tickets are advised to assure seats. 


Don''t miss it. 


(Editor''s Note: Free tickets for Handel''s "Messiah" Tuesday at Annunciation Catholic Church, 823 College St. in Columbus, are available at First United Methodist Church, the LINK, Annunciation Catholic Church and Party and Paper. For more information, contact FUMC at 662-328-5252.)


Betty Boyls Stone is a freelance writer, who grew up in Columbus.


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