I was telling an interesting story I once read about George Frederick Handel to some friends the other morning in my favourite coffee shop. They seemed to find it interesting and I hope you will too.
We were (well, I was) talking about the fact that great art is often born of arduous circumstances. This is why I sometimes have trouble with the rather new age take I see on art and artists on my Facebook, for example. I know that it is an exalted calling, but I would have to say that more often than not great art comes from profound despair, even grief, not great joy or happiness.
The best example I know of this is Handel and the writing of his famous (especially this time of year) Oratorio, Messiah.
From what I understand, the story went like this. Handel had moved to England and had scored some magnificent successes, making him a fairly wealthy man relatively early in his life. He decided to invest his money in a publishing venture and ended up losing his shirt.
(I actually run a small publishing company, B House, here in Calgary, and I can tell you there is no better way to lose money, while investing heaps and heaps of time and money and energy and everything else, than publishing. So it was, so it is till this day.)
So, Handel had lost his shirt, and in England in the 1700’s when that happened they put you in debtors’ prison. He was living in a cheap apartment in the east end of London literally waiting for the bailiff or the beadle or whomever to come and take him to prison.
As you can imagine, he was extremely depressed about the turn of events his life had taken, and as I understand it, was resigned to the possibility there was no way out of it. He was broke, and going to jail and that was that.
I’ve always thought this would be a good scene in a movie. We see Handel in his slum apartment, perhaps sitting at the kitchen table, staring into the middle distance. Perhaps he is thinking of the great successes of his life, such as The Water Music, written some 25 years earlier. He could have been thinking of literally hundreds of works he had composed over the years. Handel was very prolific.
So there he is, at his table in his grimy kitchen, and from his point of view we hear the outside door to the apartment open, and then footstep approaching down the hallway. The footsteps stop at his door. Close up of Handel’s face. Close up of the door. Back to his face. Then there is a knock at the door. Handel sighs, slowly getting up from the table slowly. He opens the door.
The door opens slowly, revealing a man clutching some papers. But these were not papers to serve in Handel’s arrest, Rather, the strange visitor had with him the libretto for an Oratorio based on the life of Jesus Christ. He wondered if Handel would be interested in composing the music for it.
Handel was. Of course, he didn’t know how much time he had, and so in a fit of inspiration fueled more by despair than anything else, he composed the entire work in less than three weeks. If you listen to the music carefully, you discover it starts off quite gloomily, often in the minor key. It takes some time to reach the sheer exhilaration of the Halleluiah chorus. By the time you get there, though, you know you’ve been on a hell of a journey.
And this, my friends, is all by way of saying Merry Christmas. I know there is incredible pressure to feel the joy, the love this time of year, but obviously for many it can be a time of great sorrow and loneliness. I know, I’ve been there. But to this I can only say, have courage, have faith, sometimes things work out better than we can possibly imagine.
Whatever the case, I hope you find some small inspiration in my little story of Mr. Handel. (And I apologize heartily to any Handel scholars who happen upon this.) On any account, here’s a wonderful rendition of you know what . . .
Thanks for reading.