Today I picked up a copy of a book entitled “More Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas” by Ace Collins. I was inspired because at our Christmas Eve service in my church in North Carolina the music leader was telling us the story behind the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” It is a song for hope, peace, and goodwill to men after the author lost his wife and had just found out that his son was badly injured in the war. The music leader spoke to those who were hurting somehow, offering peace from the One who gives it. I imagine that the power of that story touched each of us there in that service. It even moved strong men to tears because they could identify with a piece of that story. I was intrigued to hear other stories that expressed the origins of carols that we take for granted each year. Behind each is a story. When hearing these stories we then listen to these songs differently and perhaps for the first time all over again.
Over the next several posts I’m going to be retelling some of those stories that I’ve been reading about.
The first is the much beloved “Handel’s Messiah.” On youtube this week there was a video of a group of people who sang the Christmas part of the Messiah, the Hallelujah Chorus, at a food court in a mall here in the United States. It was called a “flash mob” because nobody was expecting it. The video got over 27 million hits.
Here is the story behind the piece (excerpts from the book- if you want the entire story pick up a copy of the book):
The Hallelujah Chorus is arguably the most powerful piece of music ever written. This song now reverberates so strongly during the holidays that for many, Christmas does not begin until the “Hallelujah Chorus” has been performed. The song itself was originally considered to be an Easter offering. When he composed his most famous work the great George Handel was a washed-up has-been, a frail forgotton man living in abject poverty. While penning what is now widely thought of as the world’s most dynamic musical salute to the birth of the Savior, Handel essentially was reborn himself.
Handel was a man of deep faith. He saw his music as a tribute to the Lord. His work propelled him to the top of his field, and he was made the director of the Royal Academy of Music in London in the early 1700’s. Yet, his world was hardly perfect. Behind the scenes, a lingering shadow began to haunt the still-young man. It was a demon he could not fight, eventually bringing him to his knees and causing him to question himself, his talents, and his faith. Handel physically began to fall apart. Before he reached forty, he suffered several strokes and was all but crippled by rheumatism. His eyesight had failed as well. Legally blind, barely able to walk, Handel also lost his creative powers. Desperate, he spent his savings to trying to find a cure for his various illnesses. Nothing worked. Handel went from riches to poverty, fearing his final stop on this earth would be a debtor’s prison.
One day in August 1743 he received two envelopes in the mail. The first was from the Duke of Devonshire, who wanted the composer to come to Dublin and produce a series of benefit concerts. It would be the second letter that would change not just Handel’s life, but the musical world and Christmas itself.
Charles Jennens was a wealthy eccentric whom most folks avoided, because he always seemed to have a new idea to do something a bit diferently and none of those ideas panned out. Few would have bothered even reading the note from a man like this, but Handel opened the envelope with a rare zeal for a sick man. You see, Jennens had a great idea but had hit a wall. He hoped it would be an inspiration to Handel to take it further than he himself could. Jennens had taken what he felt were the most important biblical stories centering on the Messiah and cut them down to what he viewed as the bare-bones essential passages of Scripture. His goal was to create a new musical presentation from his text.
Handel was not only interested, but for the first time in years he was inspired. On August 22, 1742, the composer locked himself in his study and set to work. In seven days he created the first segment of his new musical. This is now known as the “Christmas” section of the Messiah. The next part, “The Redemption Story,” took nine days. Part three, “The Resurrection and Future Reign of Christ on Heaven and Earth” took another week.
On April 13, 1742, with just a handful of singers and a small orchestra, the composer brought the work to life in front of a large audience. Though because of his near blindness he could not clearly see the appreciative crowd, he could tell by its response that he had finally composed another hit. A few months later he brought it to the London stage. All of English society was there for the sold-out performances. On the second night King George II was so moved by the first few notes of the “Hallelujah Chorus” that he rose to his feet, and the rest of the audience followed suit. The composer had no idea what was happening because he was blind. Yet, when the “Hallelujah Chorus” ended and he heard the thunderous applause, he knew he had once again achieved his goal of spreading his faith through his music.
Charles Burney, the eighteenth-century music historian, remarked that Handel’s Messiah “fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and fostered the orphan.” As a presentation that has raised and continues to raise millions of dollars for charity, it has done all that and more. For millions, the “Hallelujah Chorus” is the most powerful way of remembering the reason for the season.
Handel explained to his friends that when he contemplated each act, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me and the great God himself.” This one song was more than just a second chance for Handel; it has become perhaps the most powerful musical reminder of the second chance Jesus has given to us all.
And on an added note– this is not in the book, but well worth noting:
Just a few years ago in Beijing a young musician who was a believer used his own money to field a choir (mostly non-believers from China’s national chorus) and rent a concert hall to perform Handel’s Messiah in Chinese. This was the first time the piece had been performed since before 1949. The location of this concert hall was right next to the Forbidden City where emperors of long ago lived and ruled. On the other side of the street was Zhongnanhai– where the emperors of today live and rule and make decisions for an entire nation. At the end of the day, there in the middle of it all, neither kings of past nor kings of present, nor Karl Marx, nor Mao Zedong nor the atheist state have the last word. Christ does.