It has almost a quarter of a million notes. It is 237 pages long. It took just over twenty-two days to write. And it takes over three hours, a choir, and an orchestra to perform it. It is George Frederic Handel’s oratorio, MESSIAH.
Now Handel’s life and career were at a low ebb in 1700s London. He had suffered several setbacks in his musical productions. That’s when his friend and collaborator Charles Jennens brought him a script of Old and New Testament verses that chronicled the life of Christ. “Would Herr Handel take these Biblical gems and set them in a musical score?”
Handel was depressed, yet as he read the script he was gripped by it. And over the next 22 days he locked himself in his room on Hanover Street and wrote music. When his servant became so worried about Handel he broke the door down, he found the composer slumped in his chair, exhausted, the pages of the musical score scattered about. The maestro had tears in his eyes and whispered, “I did see the heavens opened and Jesus seated on His throne, the angels praising Him.”
Musicologists call it the single greatest burst of creativity in history.
All humans fear death and God’s judgement. So Handel begins his oratorio with Isaiah’s soothing words, “Comfort ye.”
Then MESSIAH breaks into three parts. The birth of Jesus. His death. And the Resurrection.
In the birth section God is saying He is incarnate: “I’m coming over to your place.”
In the death portion, God is saying, “I took your place on the cross. The Atonement.”
And in the Resurrection God is saying that in death you can come to His place—Heaven.
As the early church father Origin aptly put it, “Jesus became what we are that we might become who He is.”
It should never surprise us—Handel’s music. For there is a principle in the Bible: God acts, and man flees prose to respond musically. God created and the angels responded with the music of the spheres. God delivered Israel in the Red Sea, and Miriam sang. Gabriel told of Mary’s conception of a Savior. She sang the Magnificat.
God acts. Man bursts into song.
Mr. Handel was a Christian. The product of the Reformation. He believed every word of MESSIAH.
If you leaf through the original manuscript, you will find a few corrections and strike-overs. But mostly Handel wrote down what he was hearing in an excited gush of creative adoration.
Handel presented the work in 1742 in Dublin. Tickets were for the benefit of an orphanage. After the concert a woman said to the maestro, “Mr. Handel, you certainly entertained us tonight!” To which Handel replied, “I didn’t wish to entertain you. I wished to make you better!”
Indeed, over 260 years after his death Handel’s MESSIAH is still sound around the world. The oratorio’s three parts end with a rousing round of “Amens,” which mean “so be it” or “count me in!’ For it is exactly that response of faith that makes us better in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.