He was a world-renowned composer living in London, whose career was on the ropes, and who could no longer find work. As a result, he had gone bankrupt, and become deeply depressed. Worse than that, his once adoring public, now derided him as a "German nincompoop." One day, though a friend visited him and asked if he would write music to accompany Bible verses that had been compiled into a libretto. Around the same time, another acquaintance asked if he would compose music for a benefit performance in, of all places, Dublin, Ireland. Certainly, George Frideric Handel, needed the work to pay his bills, but more than that, he was inspired by the words from Scripture to use as text. He promptly sat down and within 24 days, produced the music for his greatest work, "Messiah."
While not written expressly for Christmas, performances have become a regular feature of the Christmas holidays. For example, this Christmas season, there were three performances in New York City: one at Lincoln Center, another at Trinity Church, in Lower Manhattan, and a third in the Bronx, at Christ Church Riverdale.
The first time Cindy and I heard Handel's "Messiah" performed in public, was in December 1985. At the time, we were in the process of moving to Akron, Ohio, and were staying in a local hotel, awaiting the closing of our new home. Cindy learned the Akron Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, was giving a performance of "Messiah", to be held in an auditorium on the campus of Akron University. She got on the phone and purchased tickets for the following night. I didn't know what to expect, and was thoroughly inspired by what I heard--uplifting words from the King James Bible, set to Handel's inspired music. I was deeply moved. More than that, it introduced me to the world of classical music.
Flash ahead 37 years, and once again we attended a public performance of Handel's "Messiah", this time performed by the New York Philharmonic, coupled with the Handel and Haydn Society Chorus, plus four world-renowned soloists (soprano Sherezade Pantaki, of India; countertenor Reginald Mobley, USA; tenor Leif Aruhn-Solen, of Sweden; and baritone Jonathan Adams, of Edmonton, Canada.) The conductor was a Baroque specialist, named Masaaki Suzaki, of Japan. It was a glorious performance, crisp, precise and bright, and particularly resonant inside the newly refurbished David Geffen Hall, at the Lincoln Center.
According to music critics, “Messiah” is Handel’s greatest oratorio, and the greatest choral work ever composed in English. It was written in a big hurry, between August 22 and September 14, 1741, and was premiered in Dublin on April 13, 1742.
The libretto, compiled by Charles Jennens, draws exclusively from excerpts from both the Old and New Testaments, and tells the story of the birth, ministry, and death of Christ Jesus. Jennens surely was well read on the English Bible, as he picked many truly inspired Biblical passages, drawn from the books of Isaiah, Psalms, Job, Lamentations, Zechariah, Haggai, Malachi, Matthew, Luke, John, Romans, I Corinthians, and Revelation.
"Messiah" is comprised of three parts. The highlight is, of course, the Hallelujah chorus (Revelation 19:6), which comes midway through the second part. Other favorite passages include "Every valley shall be exalted"(Isaiah 40:4); "And he shall purify" (Malachi 3:3); "For unto us a Child is born" (Isaiah 9:6); "Surely, He hath borne our sorrows" (Isaiah 53:4); "Lift up your heads" (Psalm 24:7-10); and "The trumpet shall sound (I Corinthians 15:52).
What struck me this time, is that "Messiah" is really a communal celebration, like being in some universal church, a coming together of people from all walks of life and religious denominations, celebrating peace, joy, freedom, love, and brotherhood.
I was so overjoyed, I insisted we do something we had never done before, take a "selfie"!