In a small London house on Brook Street, a servant sighs with resignation as he arranges a tray full of food. he assumes will not be eaten. For more than a week, he has faithfully continued to wait on his employer, an eccentric composer, who spends hour after hour isolated in his own room. Morning, noon, and evening the servant delivers appealing meals to the composer and returns later to find the bowls and platters largely untouched. Once again, he steels himself to go through the same routine, muttering under his breath about how oddly temperamental musicians can be. As he swings open the door to the composer’s room, the servant stops in his tracks.
The startled composer, tears streaming down his face, turns to his servant and cries out, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” George Frederic Handel had just finished writing a movement that would take its place in history as the Hallelujah Chorus.
This excerpt comes from a book kindly given to me by a member of our Stake Presidency, Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers by Patrick Kavanaugh (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996 – the excerpt is from p. 27). I’ve been impressed with some of the spiritual aspects of many great composers. Quite a few lived rather disappointing lives, of course, but even they had their moments of religious contemplation and even fervor.
The spirituality of Handel, Bach, and Mendelssohn especially impress me – how wonderful it will be to meet them after the Resurrection.
Handel, for example, was a great but humble man who had struggled to overcome one failure after another. Eventually, in 1741, he was swimming in debt, in poor health, and facing debtors prison. But at that dark time, he was blessed to get a commission from a Dublin charity. Further, a wealthy friend gave him a libretto about the life of Christ, with the text taken entirely from the Bible. He began working on the music and became wholly absorbed in the project, producing 260 pages of manuscript in 24 days – achieving something that I think can be fairly compared to the output of Joseph Smith in translating the Book of Mormon. Some have called it the greatest feat in all of musical composition. He simply called the composition Messiah. Handel’s work clearly had the signs of being driven and guided by inspiration from Heaven. He wrote to a friend about his experience composing it and quoted Paul: “Whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote it I know not.”
Handel finally came into some money after the huge success of the Messiah. But the proceeds were largely for charity. It premiered April 13, 1742, as a charitable benefit, raising 400 pounds and freeing 142 men from debtors prison. Handel conducted many of the performances during his life, raising large sums of money to support the Foundling Hospital and to help the poor in many ways. How fitting that a piece called Messiah should so powerfully continue the work of the Messiah Himself, while also bearing testimony of Him.