George Frederick Handel was a German composer, born in Prussia–though he spent 50 years of his life in England, and became a British citizen. In his early years, his father pushed him toward a career in law, and discouraged his interest in music. But it is difficult to ignore true genius. Finally, his father accepted his son’s love of music, and Handel devoted himself to a lifelong study of the subject.
By the time George was 9 years old, he was writing cantatas, and sonatas. By the age of 12 he had mastered the organ to the extent that he sometimes substituted for his own teacher! He was also a skilled performer on the violin, the oboe, and the harpsichord. He spent 3 years in Italy, writing operas, then made England his permanent home in 1712. Handel was blind for the last 6 years of his life, but he continued to write. He died in 1759, and is buried in Westminster Abbey.
Handel was far from perfect. A temperamental musician with a short fuse, he was reputed to swear at performers in several languages when they were not up to his high standard. But he was also quick admit his failing and apologize. And, in spite of his weaknesses, George Handel was a committed Christian, and a member of the Lutheran church. He was a man of prayer, who sought to serve the Lord with his sacred music. When someone commented that people found Messiah excellent “entertainment,” he replied, “I should be sorry if I only entertain them. I wish to make them better!”
It struck me, on reading about the latter conversation, that Handel’s words strike to the heart of a conflict regarding sacred music in the churches of today. Some insist on being entertained, but the words of Colossians 3:16 alert us to quite another purpose: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing [exhorting] one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”
George Frederick Handel’s output was enormous: about 24 oratorios, more than 40 operas, 40 concertos, plus many sonatas, cantatas, chamber duets, and other pieces of church music. Quite a few hymn tunes are credited to him, most being adapted from his compositions. For example: the tune Antioch, is used with Joy to the World, and Christmas, with While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night. Here’s a spirited rendition of Joy to the World.
The incomparable oratorio Messiah was written in 1741, in the astoundingly short period of 24 days. Handel ate little, and rarely left his room, as he composed. At one point, a servant entered with some food, as Handel was just completing the well-known Hallelujah Chorus. He turned to the servant with tears streaming down his face and exclaimed, “I did think I did see all heaven before me, and the great God Himself!” When the king of England attended a performance of Messiah, he rose to his feet during the singing of the Hallelujah Chorus. In adherence to protocol, the entire audience stood too. Standing for this exalted exclamation of worship is a worthy custom that has endured for over 250 years.
Here are two selections from Handel’s masterpiece, performed by two different choirs: And the Glory of the Lord, and the familiar Hallelujah Chorus.
To my mind, this masterpiece may be the greatest piece of music ever written. If you have never taken the opportunity to attend a live performance with a large choir and full orchestra, I recommend this as a life-changing experience. (Or purchase a good recording, and listen over and over–the next best thing). Handel takes us through the life of Christ, and on into eternity, using a careful arrangement of the Scriptures. For your interest, here are the Scriptures quoted:
- PROMISE AND FULFILMENT–prophecies of the Messiah’s incarnation, the story of His birth, His earthly life and ministry: Isa. 40:1-5; Hag. 2:6-7; Mal. 3:1-3; Isa. 7:14; Isa. 40:9; Isa. 60:1-3; Isa. 9:2, 6; Lk. 2:8-11; Zech. 9:9-10; Isa. 35:5-6; Isa. 40:11; Matt. 11:28-30.
- REJECTION AND REDEMPTION–Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension to the Father’s right hand: Jn. 1:29; Isa. 53:3; Isa. 50:6; Isa. 53:4-6; Ps. 22:7-8; Ps. 69:20; Lam. 1:12; Isa. 53:8; Ps. 16:10; Ps. 24:7-10; Heb. 1:5-6; Ps. 68:18.
- PROCLAMATION AND CONSUMMATION–the preaching of the gospel, the resurrection of the saints, Christ’s coming reign, with some concluding words of worship and encouragement: Ps. 68:11; Isa. 52:7; (Rom. 10:15); Rom. 10:18; Ps. 2:1-4, 9; Rev. 19:6; Rev. 19:16; Job 19:25-26; I Cor. 15:20-22, 55-57; Rom. 8:31, 33-34; Rev. 5:12-13.
I have often wondered whether it would be possible to create a series of Bible studies, built on these texts, studies that would include listening to appropriate sections of the oratorio.
(2) Today in 1816 – John Bode Born
John Ernest Bode was an English clergyman and scholar. The time came when his daughter and two sons were facing confirmation, a public testimony to their faith, in accordance with the practice of the Church of England. It was for them that he penned the words of the hymn, O Jesus, I Have Promised. (His original version read, “O Jesus, we have promised…”) He told them, “I have written a hymn containing all the important truths I want you to remember.” And whether or not our churches have an official ceremony of confirmation, there is value in John Bode’s poetic advice.
O Jesus, I have promised to serve Thee to the end;
Be Thou forever near me, my Master and my Friend;
I shall not fear the battle if Thou art by my side,
Nor wander from the pathway if Thou wilt be my Guide.
O let me feel Thee near me! The world is ever near;
I see the sights that dazzle, the tempting sounds I hear;
My foes are ever near me, around me and within;
But Jesus, draw Thou nearer, and shield my soul from sin.
O let me hear Thee speaking in accents clear and still,
Above the storms of passion, the murmurs of self will.
O speak to reassure me, to hasten or control;
O speak, and make me listen, Thou Guardian of my soul.
O Jesus, Thou hast promised to all who follow Thee
That where Thou art in glory there shall Thy servant be.
And Jesus, I have promised to serve Thee to the end;
O give me grace to follow, my Master and my Friend.