Handel's Spiritual Life
George Fredric Handel was born in Germany and was a contemporary of Bach, though the two geniuses never ended up meeting each other. Handel’s father was a surgeon with a no–nonsense attitude. If his father could have had his way, Handel’s masterpiece Messiah would never have been composed as he wanted his son to attend law school. And even though the young Handel showed great promise in music, his father didn’t send him to music school till much later. Handel wrote his first composition at the age of 12.
Handel’s physique was riveting as he was robust and tall, and his English was interspersed with bits of German, all of which added to his jovial presence. Moreover, Handel loved to tell jokes and stories. Unlike Beethoven, who was well-known for his temper, Handel was forgiving and apologised if he ever lost his temper.
Handel’s spiritual life can be summed up if one hears and feels his masterpiece Messiah. The 260-page composition is the mirror that rightly reflects his spirituality. There is a very famous story about Handel, while he was composing this masterpiece in his house in London. He didn’t leave his house for 24 days. The servant would come with his food and return everyday without it being touched. Then one day, as the servant walked in to put the food tray that he knew would not be touched yet again, the composer turned around with tears in his eyes and said: “I did think I did see all heaven before me and the great God himself.” Later, Handel summed up his own experience when he quoted St. Paul, saying: “Whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote it I know not.”
Handel belonged to an era when Christian composers usually worked for the church. Handel didn’t really fit this pattern as he composed secular opera, orchestra and chamber music. Yet he was a devout Christian and was known for his compassion for others. He was known for his generosity and freely donated to charities even when he was faced with financial ruin. In, fact no other musical work has raised as much money for charities as the Messiah, which premiered to raise money for charity.
In church, he was often seen on his knees, his face showing the utmost devotion. He was passionate about whatever he did and his belief in God was the same. Handel’s life was full of misfortune, ones which may have crushed an ordinary man. His relentless optimism and unshakable faith saw him through all his difficulties and he could never be defeated.
After the first performance of the Messiah, as Lord Kinnoul congratulated him, Handel replied: “My Lord, I should be sorry if I only entertain them. I wish to make them better.” This sums up what the composer himself expected from his music.
His friend Sir John Hawkins once said that throughout his life, Handel manifested a deep sense of religion. And he would often declare that he felt great pleasure in setting the scriptures to music and how contemplating the Psalms had contributed to his edification. Not many of Handel’s letters survive, but in one of them he comforts his brother-in-law on the death of Handel’s mother: “It pleased the Almighty to whose great holy will I submit myself with Christian submission.” Handel was raised a devout Lutheran. He always stayed clear of sectarian animosities. Once, while defending himself in front of a quarrelsome Bishop, he said: “I have read my Bible very well and will choose for myself.”
Many composers may claim to have felt the divine through their music, but only Handel’s Messiah can claim to have a spiritual impact on the listeners as well. One writer has stated that Messiah’s music and message “has probably done more to convince thousands of mankind that there is a God about us than all the theological works ever written”.
A few days before Handel died, he expressed his desire to die on Good Friday, “in the hopes of meeting his good God, his sweet Lord and Savior, on the day of his Resurrection”. He lived until the morning of Good Saturday, April 14, 1759. His death came only eight days after his final performance, at which he had conducted his masterpiece, Messiah.
On his grave stone in Westminister Abbey are inscribed the words of his favourite Messiah selections: “I know that my redeemer liveth.”
References and Sources
- Beethoven and the Spiritual Path, by David Tame
- Complete Letters of Beethoven
- The Spiritual Lives of Great Composers, by Kavanaugh
- Paul Brians Homepage
- Christian History Institute