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Handel's Messiah and the 142

Here is a something to think about as Christmas comes: the number 142.

Let me explain.

George Fridrich Handel, though born in Germany, is best remembered for the many years he lived in England, writing music for a series of British monarchs and for English audiences. Trained in Germany and Italy, Handel was a master of Baroque art forms, and was the first to introduce the ideas of Italian masters to British audiences. For many decades, he enjoyed great success. But by the 1740s, British music tastes had changed, and the popularity of Italian opera, Handel's specialty, began to wane in favor of works with English lyrics.

After several failed operas in Italian, Handel was at a low point in his career. His interest turned to the oratorio, a musical form that involved the setting of prose or poetry to music, and, in Handel's case, allowed for the adaptation of sacred scripture, translated into English, to classical and operatic musical styles. Handel was hoping that oratorios in English and the familiarity of the Bible would appeal to English general audiences.

His friend Charles Jennens, a well-known librettist, assembled and edited the text of the Messiah especially for Handel, in the hopes that a successful oraratio on the life of Jesus Christ would improve Handel's fortunes. However Handel, perhaps feeling he should not personally benefit from such a holy subject, had his own idea. He would donate the proceeds to charity.

At first, Handel, busy with other projects, put Jennens off, but in the late summer of 1741 he composed the masterpiece with astonishing speed. In a mere 24 days, he had completely scored 53 movements, including the immortal Hallalujah Chorus.

After some delay, Handel decided to perform Messiah for the first time in Dublin in 1742. No one is certain why he made the decision to open in Dublin instead of his hometown of London. Possibly, it was because he had promised the Duke of Devonshire, who was serving as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, a series of concerts there. However, an equally plausible reason was that Church of England clergy were resistant to orotorios based on the Bible, because they believed sacred scripture should never be used as a form of entertainment. In fact, Handel's previous attempt at a biblically based oratorio, Israel in Egypt (1739), failed under withering attacks from the British clergy.

Handel may have sensed that Irish audiences, being somewhat removed from the reach of conservative Anglican thinking and more in line with Catholic tradition, would be more receptive. The Catholic Church, through its veneration of the Saints and its tradition of live Nativity scenes, was much more accustomed to dramatizations of sacred stories.

But for whatever reason, the Messiah premiered in Dublin, Ireland, on April 13, 1742, and would not appear in London for another year (where it was, confirming Handel's instincts, less well received).

In Dublin, the Messiah was a smash hit, and 700 people packed the New Music Hall to hear the opening performance. So many advance tickets were sold that the concert managers asked men to leave their swords at home and for women not to wear hoops in their skirts so they could pack more people onto the benches.

For one of the work's most famous movements, "He was despised," Handel chose Susanna Cibber, an actress who had been disgraced by a London sex scandal. A clergyman in the audience was so moved by her performance that he leapt to his feet at the end of the movement and cried out, "Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!"

And in this vein of forgiveness, we come to the number 142.

The Messiah opening netted £400 on opening night, and true to his word, Handel distributed the proceeds to three charities -- two hospitals, and a debtor's prison. And so in April, 1742, 142 people were released from an Irish debtor's prison when Handel paid off their debts. Freedom for a song.

Perhaps, when you hear the Hallelujah Chorus or any part of the Messiah this Christmas week, you may think of forgiveness, and of the number 142.

Imagine: The Hallelujah Chorus bought the freedom of 142 Irish debtors. As if you didn't have enough reason to love it already.

Why did Handel do it? Perhaps we can see the answer in Handel's own words. After completing the Hallelujah Chorus, he told a friend, "I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself."

If this were a visual work I might close with a recorded section of the Messiah, but since I am restricted to words alone, let us close with a few exerpts from Jennen's famous libretto.

From Part I:

For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given,
and the government shall be upon His shoulder;
and His name shall be called,
Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God,
the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
(Isaiah 9:6)

He shall feed His flock like a shepherd;
and He shall gather the lambs with His arm,
and carry them in His bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.
(Isaiah 40:11)

Come unto Him, all ye that labour,
come unto Him that are heavy laden,
and He will give you rest.
Take His yoke upon you, and learn of Him,
for He is meek and lowly of heart,
and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
(St. Matthew 11:28-29)

From Part II:

He was despised and rejected of men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
(Isaiah 53:3)

From Part II: Hallelujah Chorus:

Hallelujah: for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
(Revelation 19:6)

The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ;
and He shall reign for ever and ever.
(Revelation 11:15)

King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.
(Revelation 19:16)

From Part III:

O death, where is thy sting?
O grave, where is thy victory?
The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.
(1Corinthians 15:55-56)

And finally, from Part III, my favorite, the Great Amen:

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain,
and hath redeemed us to God by His blood,
to receive power, and riches, and wisdom,
and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.
Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him
that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever.

(Revelation 5:12-14)


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