Setting Scripture to Music

In a small London house on Brook Street, a waiter sighs with resignation as he arranges a tray full of food he fully expects will not be eaten.

For more than a week, he has faithfully continued to wait on his employer, an eccentric composer, who spends hour after hour isolated in his own room. Morning, noon, and evening the man delivers appealing meals to the composer, and returns later to find the bowls and platters mostly untouched.

Once again, he steels himself to go through the same routine, muttering under his breath about how oddly temperamental musicians can be. As he swings open the door to the composer's room, the waiter stops in his tracks.

The startled composer, tears streaming down his face, turns to him and cries out, "I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself." George Frideric Handel had just finished writing a movement which would take its place in history as the "Hallelujah Chorus."

Handel was a devout Christian who loved setting Scripture to music for his own edification and that of others.

His friend Sir John Hawkins recorded that Handel "throughout his life manifested a deep sense of religion. In conversation he would frequently declare the pleasure he felt in setting the Scriptures to music, and how contemplating the many sublime passages in the Psalms had contributed to his edification."

While it was common at the time for composers to be employed by churches, Handel worked in the secular music world so that he could bring the Bible to audiences. This caused some controversy among other Christians at the time, but Handel remained committed.

He was known for his generosity and charity. In fact, the first performance of Messiah was for an Irish charity fundraiser. 

Handel personally conducted more than thirty performances of Messiah. Many of these concerts were benefits for the Foundling Hospital, of which Handel was a major benefactor. The thousands of pounds Handel's performances of Messiah raised for charity led one biographer to note, "Messiah has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan ... more than any other single musical production in this or any country." Another wrote, "Perhaps the works of no other composer have so largely contributed to the relief of human suffering."

Near death during Holy week, Handel expressed his hope "of meeting his good God, his sweet Lord and Savior, on the day of his Resurrection."

His close friend James Smyth wrote, "He died as he lived—a good Christian, with a true sense of his duty to God and to man, and in perfect charity with all the world." Handel was buried in Westminster Abbey, with over 3,000 in attendance at his funeral. A statue erected there shows him holding the manuscript for the solo that opens Part Three of Messiah, "I know that my Redeemer liveth."

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Melinda Penner