As I do every Christmas season, I purchased a ticket to see a performance of Handel’s Messiah. This year because I’m back in Houston, I was lucky enough to see the Houston Symphony’s version of this magnificent oratorio.
I arrived about a half-hour early for the concert, so I settled in and read the playbill’s notes on George Frederich Handel’s life. I picked up on a few things that I might have learned had I been paying attention in my high school music appreciation class. It said that in the 18th century, the measure of success for every composer was the opera. And while Handel had success for three decades, by the mid-1730s, he was falling out of favor. The audience for his last opera, Deidamia, had diminished so much that only three performances were held in London before it was canceled.
Understandably discouraged and at a loss about his career prospects, Handel decided to take the winter season of 1741 off. Alarmed that Handel might waste his talents, good friend and former collaborator Charles Jennens encouraged him to try again on a new project—he had written a “Scripture Collection” for him. In a letter to a friend he wrote, “I hope he will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah.”
That fall of 1741, Handel took the scripture collection that Jennens prepared for him, wrote the score for the Messiah, and premiered the work while in residency in Dublin, Ireland in April 1742 to a resounding success. The Dublin Journal reported that the work was “the finest composition of Musick that ever was heard…Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded the admiring crouded Audience.”
When the Messiah premiered in London in March 1743, the custom of standing during the “Hallelujah” chorus is explained in a letter from 18th-century Scottish essayist James Beattie: “…when the chorus struck up ‘For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth,’ they were so transported they all, together with the king (who happened to be present), started up, and remained standing till the chorus ended; and hence it became the fashion in England for the audience to stand while that part of the music is performing.”
I quote all this not to give you a history lesson, but because it struck me, sitting there waiting for the concert to start, that this historical figure was perhaps at the lowest moment of his professional life. For 30 years he’d been composing operas, but his last few have been losing money, and now his latest one has been canceled after three performances, which must have been embarrassing and devastating for him. He may have been at a crossroads, thinking it was time to move on, do something else or maybe even retire.
But a good friend reached out to him at this critical juncture, handed him some text, and said, “Don’t make any decisions yet. Here. Do something with this.”
And the oratorio that Handel composed became one of the greatest musical gifts the world has ever heard. It’s a composition that 281 years later, the world is still celebrating, still playing, still enjoying. Heart-bursting, soul-searing pieces that lift us up and carry us away. As it did in 1742, it still transports us.
Handel seized upon the second chance given to him and created the miracle that still blesses us centuries later. He never wrote another opera, but wrote 15 more oratorios after Messiah; still, Messiah is considered his masterpiece.
Many of us may find ourselves diminished, brought low, and facing a crossroads in life—both personally and professionally. If you are aware of someone struggling, remember that no one is too great (even a child prodigy) or too insignificant (even a homeless person) that they cannot benefit from a helping hand or a word of encouragement. One never knows the untapped miracles that may lie inside a person.
On Friday, December 9, 2022, at the end of the “Hallelujah” chorus, the Houston audience, which until then had remained quite well-behaved, could no longer hold back. Not only were we standing, but spontaneous, thunderous applause broke through Jones Hall. Goosebumps all around.
I wish you all a joyous Christmas! May you find your own miracles to marvel at this holiday season. If you have any stories of lives turned around because of second chances, please share them in the Comments section below.
All quoted text and historical references are from the InTune playbill, December 2022, Houston Symphony, written by John Mangum.
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