George Frederic Handel (1685-1750) was born in Germany, but naturalized an English citizen in 1727. He was a master of all the major forms of composition of his day, but the genre in which he made the greatest contribution was English oratorio. An oratorio is a dramatic work which is musically built just like an opera of the same time period, the key differences being that oratorios were not staged or acted out in any way, and also dealt primarily with sacred subject matter. Handel’s most famous oratorio, Messiah was written over 24 days in the summer of 1741 and premiered in Dublin in April 1742. It quickly gained in popularity and became Handel’s most performed work. It remains so to this day.
Handel’s occasion for composing Messiah was not nearly as glamorous as the oratorio’s reputation might suggest. In 1741, Handel found himself deeply in debt, and even threatened with debtor’s prison. The competitive nature of the world of London opera composers had not been particularly lucrative for him, as he constantly found himself at odds with shrewder men, if not better composers. Fleeing to Dublin on the promise of fulfilling a commission for a new oratorio, Handel surely felt the pressure to write a successful new work. During the three weeks of its creation, he hardly ate and almost never slept.
Although Handel was known to turn out new music in short order, often necessitated by the need for new music between operatic seasons, the composition of Messiah was driven by a different and better motivation. A story goes that a servant, bringing a meal to the composer, and receiving no response to his knocks at the door, opened the door to find Handel with his eyes lifted toward Heaven, with tears streaming down his face. When the servant asked Handel what was wrong,Handel replied, “I did think that I saw all Heaven opened before me!” At the composer’s hand lay the score of his oratorio’s most famous piece: the chorus “Hallelujah.” Apocryphal perhaps, but the story does capture both the fervor of Handel’s composition and his true desire to place the very glory of God in his listeners’ ears. This reality is not apocryphal, but documented in more reliable facts. After a public performance of Messiah, a well-meaning audience member walked up to Handel and complimented the composer on how much he had been “entertained” by the music. Handel responded with gravity: “I should be very sorry, sir, if I only entertained you. I had hoped to make you a better man.”
It is not only in the music of the Church that God is glorified. Johann Sebastian Bach signed all of his music S.D.G., not just his church music. George Frederic Handel wrote Messiah for the concert stage, not for the liturgy. Despite their many failings, these men knew who they were and what they were about, and they did not succumb to any form of a Doctrine of Fractured Identity. They were who they were through and through, all in all – a condition known as integrity. Perhaps it is not surprising then that Handel borrowed Bach’s ubiquitous dedication, writing at the end of his autograph score of Messiah “S.D.G.” – to God alone be the glory.