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Handel’s Messiah: Music for Many Good Causes

Guest Blogger • Apr 10, 2009

Music can be a marvelous way to make money. Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid concerts have raised more than $33 million to save family farms. The First Lady of France, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, donated the royalties from her last album to La Fondation de France and personally delivered the first check for €280,000 to a school in Haiti wiped out by mud. Organizer Pete Seeger will be celebrating his 90th birthday with a concert May 3rd to help clean up the Hudson River.

Most people think of Messiah as Christmas music, but it opened in Dublin, Ireland, on Good Friday in 1742 as a fundraiser. It was advertised “For the relief of the prisoners in the several Gaols” since the Messiah came to free the prisoners. Handel was a very successful entrepreneurial musician, but he gave away all the profits from Messiah. Here’s the story:

George Frederick Handel was born in Halle, Germany, and started working as the organist for a Protestant Cathedral at age 17. At 21 he went to Italy to learn Italian Opera and earn more money. In 1710, Handel moved to London to compose and produce Italian-style operas there. When his subscription scheme did not produce enough revenue, he jumped on the new style: Oratorios, Bible stories set to music and presented in English. The Act of Union in 1707 had combined England, Scotland, and Wales into Britain, and English politicians were pushing English Only to diminish the use of Scotch and Welsh Gaelic.

As an immigrant, Handel could not own property, but he rented a townhouse in a nice neighborhood and made a good living selling subscriptions to his oratorios. He flourished when a former employer from Germany became George I in 1714.

But it was when he was at his lowest that he wrote his most glorious music. Burn out from business failures and a stroke at age 52 left him destitute and depressed. He went to Dublin for the winter in 1741 to recover at the home of friends. His librettist Charles Jennens suggested that he write something comparing the Old Testament promise of the Messiah and the New Testament fulfillment in Jesus Christ, using quotes from the King James Bible and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Imagine writing 267 pages of musical scores in 24 days, by hand, using a quill pen. Driven by Divine Inspiration and fueled by hot chocolate, Handel cranked out his masterpiece Messiah.

As the Rock Star of his day, he advertised in the Dublin Journal as follows:
‘For the relief of the prisoners in the several Gaols and for the Support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen’s Street and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inn’s Quay, on Monday 12th April will be performed at the Musick Hall in Fishamble Street, Mr. Handel’s new Grand Oratorio called the MESSIAH…’ A ticket frenzy took off so that the promoters had to ask the gentlemen to “appear without your swords” (they wore elegant 40″ sabers for dress-up) and the women to appear without their hoops under their skirts. Seven hundred people filled a room designed for 600 and made Messiah a musical and philanthropic success.

Handel returned to London in triumph and continued to donate profits from Messiah to his favorite causes. He was a founding member of “the Society for Decay’d Musicians” (now wisely rebranded as the ‘Royal Society of Musicians’), did many benefit performances and left a legacy of £1,000, worth $182,000 today, for his fellow musicians. He became a Governor of the Foundling Hospital, the first institution in England to care for abandoned children, and did sell-out concerts to attract more supporters for the Hospital. Altogether he raised £10,299 for the Foundling Hospital, worth almost $2 million today. He also gave the hospital an original manuscript of Messiah, the extraordinary work that drove all his giving in his later years.

Classical music fans all over the world will celebrate the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death next Tuesday, April 14. People committed to justice for prisoners, retirement benefits for musicians, and health care for homeless children can be celebrating on the same day.

Joan Flanagan is the Fundraiser for the Center for New Community and does the Sing-Along Messiah every December at the Lyric Opera House in Chicago. If you are ever in London, she highly recommends the Handel House Museum at 25 Brook Street. Armchair travelers can enjoy it at www.handelhouse.org.
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