The year was 1741, and a trio of circumstances unfolded to bring a masterpiece into existence in Ireland. It was a time when an artist’s survival depended on the generosity of patrons, and for 40 years one particular musician, named George, enjoyed the favors of many high placed patrons as he composed classical music for the aristocracy of Europe. Then George suffered a stroke, which left him paralyzed and unable to write. The fickle Court society spurned the former master, and he was all but forgotten.
But George was not a quitter; he went to health baths and gradually regained his strength. In a surge of inspiration, he composed four operas, which once more won him favor in Court circles, as England’s Queen Caroline became his patroness. But just as his star was on the rise again, tragedy struck. The untimely death of Queen Caroline in 1737, coupled with a severe winter which kept people from the theater, left George deeply in debt. At the age of 60, he was a broken and lonely man living in a dingy London flat.
The first in a trio of fortunate circumstances occurred one night, when a bulky packet was delivered to his shabby dwelling. It contained a letter from an obscure poet named Charles Jennens relating that he had been inspired by God to write the enclosed manuscript. He begged George to put it to music. George was outraged at the affront. His talent and energies were not to be wasted on religious hymns, but to be expended on high opera that would return him to his former prominence, and who did this second‑rate poet think he was kidding with his “inspired by God” nonsense.
About to throw the manuscript away, the second circumstance occurred as George decided to leaf through the pages, and a passage caught his eye. “Despised and rejected of men; he trusted in God, and God did not leave his soul in hell.” The words held meaning for George in his own despair. As he read on, wonderful melodies began to come to his mind; he grabbed for his pen and paper, and began writing.
In a fit of inspiration, he labored frantically for 24 days, with barely a few moments of sleep and a few morsels of food. When it was finally completed, he lay exhausted on his bed. He knew that he had composed his greatest work, but without patrons he could not afford to promote it. Since London society no longer accepted him, George was in need of a third fortunate circumstance.
It came as George remembered an old invitation from the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin, to conduct one of his works in Ireland, with an Irish Choir. George inquired if the invitation still stood. It did. The date was set, and George was so delighted at this opportunity to snub the Royal Court that he agreed to donate the proceeds to charity.
In Dublin, George merged two choirs and rehearsed his new work. Newspaper critics, who were allowed to view the dress rehearsal, called it the “finest composition of music ever heard.” It was dubbed impressive and inspired, and the demand for tickets was intense. Gentlemen in attendance were asked not to wear swords, and ladies not to wear hoops so that more could be fit into the hall.
Then, on April 13, 1742, a record audience crowded Neal’s Music Hall on Fishamble Street, Dublin as hundreds of less affluent citizens stood by the open windows of the theater to hear the new masterpiece which was to debut in Ireland. At Noon, the anxious audience watched as George Frederick Handel appeared, and personally conducted, for the first time anywhere, the score of MESSIAH, recognized today as the greatest sacred oratorio ever written, and a standard of our musical canon at both Christmas and Easter.
You will undoubtedly hear the Hallelujah chorus, one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music, this Easter. If you don’t, go to Youtube.com and look for the Hallelujah Chorus of Messiah and imagine yourself crowded into a Dublin theater.