The flame of the last candles was about to be extinguished. There were hardly any other candles left in the house. The economic hardships were increasing more and more. No candles, no wine; those were the two things that George Frederick needed the most now. Some, to illuminate the scores while he composed — he liked to do it at night, taking advantage of the general silence. The wine served to drown the sorrows.
On the harpsichord, in addition to the messy pentagrammed sheets, was the notification from the notary: if he did not pay, they would evict him. He owed three months of rent from the old house at 25 Brool Street, where he had moved to a couple of years ago. London had been very generous to him at one time, but now, after investing almost all his savings — about one hundred thousand pounds — in the last failed musical project, he was in debt. He did not know what to do.
— Johan Sebastian will not be as well known in Germany as I am in England, but he lives peacefully. Working for the aristocracy or for the Church — which has been the same — it saves this anguish I feel, he reflected bitterly as he emptied his glass.
Händel was the first composer who had made his creativity available not to the nobles but, as an independent businessman, to the general public. A few operas — of excellent quality no doubt — had made him very popular amongst the eighteenth-century London society. But the nobility did not forgive this slight: the criticism of his last works had been cruel, very harsh. Thus, calling him “vulgar," "prosaic" and "coarse," they had managed to delegitimize him. The public, carried away by what was commented with a doctoral air from the "connoisseurs," either applauded or stopped applauding. In this case, the public had stopped clapping.
In this way Händel, glorified and loved some time ago, was now being forgotten. His works, which were still as deep and beautiful as ever, now hardly attracted any public. His opera company had gone bankrupt and he now owed salaries to his musicians and singers. Tormented, and seriously thinking about suicide as the only way to escape from so many torments, that night George Frederick went to sleep devoid of all hope.
Early next morning, Charles Jennens, a close friend of the composer and a wealthy landowner who had helped him on more than one occasion with librettos for his operas and oratorios, came to his house. He requested not to wake up George Frederick and left an envelope to be given to him later on. So his servant, good Christof, when he had the breakfast already prepared (a meager breakfast, by the way, with the few things that were left in the pantry ) handed the envelope to his master.
— What is this? — the maestro asked, somehow astonished.
— Sir Jennens stopped by early today. He said that there you would find the solution to your problems.
— That? What does that mean? — Händel asked, somewhat perturbed.
— So, he said, and the servant repeated fearfully — he asked me to convey this to him. Literally: that there would be the solution to all your ills. He told me so.
George Frederick’s astonishment was increasing. Quickly, forgetting about breakfast, he opened the envelope. Inside were hundreds of pages and a small obituary. He read it in anguish.
–The letter of an oratorio! In English… And he asks me to set it to music. Well, it's not a bad idea, but...
At first, he hesitated. There were already too many accumulated failures. Besides... an oratorio is not so easily composed, he thought. That would take time, and the debts were outstanding. The eviction order could come at any moment. On the other hand, all of that had him desperate, anguished. Depression kept him from moving forward. The wine was his refuge, and the music was already seen by him as a torment.
Without being able to speak directly with Charles Jennens, accepting the proposal that he made to premiere the work in Dublin, Ireland, he sat down to compose. The sponsor of the invitation was trustworthy: the Charitable Musical Society of Dublin. "Respectable people, without a doubt," George Frederick told himself. There was nothing left but to write it down.
It was never possible to explain what happened to him. He was by then an accomplished musician, 56 years old, and he knew the effort it took to create something, even if it was a small work. But to his surprise, this oratorio came out with inconceivable ease. Sitting before his harpsichord, he spent long hours each day, never even getting up to eat or go to the bathroom. It was like this for three consecutive weeks. Three weeks of uninterrupted work, absorbed in creation, without bathing, without a single distraction.
The servant Christof later made it known that at some point — on the third day after he began to compose — he heard the maestro speak. To his amazement, there was no one in the room where he composed. Christof thought that his master was raving. The good servant thought that the stroke he had suffered not long ago had surely driven him a little crazy. Although he approached the door, he could not understand what he was talking about. He thought he heard another voice besides Händel’s, but there was no one else in the room. He imagined a case of split personality. The two voices exchanged words in Italian, a language that Christof did not understand.
In three weeks, the oratorio was finished. As directed by Sir Jennens, George and Christof marched to Ireland for its premiere. Händel was quite popular there, so the presentation of a new work by him had attracted a lot of attention. It raised so much expectation, that even in the newspapers men were asked to attend without a sword, and women without a wide skirt, thus being able to take more advantage of the theatre space. Thus, on the 12th April 1742, at noon — an unusual time for a concert — El Mesías premiered. It was during the middle of Easter, since the oratorio was dedicated, essentially, to exalting the resurrection of Jesus and not his birth, as it would happen years later, having become almost an obligatory emblem of the Christmas season.
Quite unusual for the time, a crowd of 700 packed the Great Music Hall. The success was resounding, spectacular. That first rendition was for philanthropy, giving all the proceeds to charities.
— The money will be for the sick and for the prisoners, because I have been sick and with this work I have been cured; I was a prisoner, and this work released me — Händel would affirm after the premiere.
As the reception from the public was so good, more functions were quickly organised. In all those cases, no longer charitable. In this way, George Frederick was able to gather a good sum of money, which allowed him to pay off all his debts.
Thus, he returned to London financially stable. The fame of the work began to grow. In England, always looking down on Ireland, it was considered in the worst taste, almost blasphemous, to mount a play called The Messiah, dedicated to the life, passion, and death of the Redeemer, in a theatre. When wanting to mount it in the capital of the kingdom, which showed an exaggerated puritanism, he then had to change the title of the oratorio to Sacred Drama.
Finally, The Messiah was presented in London. At the first performance, at the Covent Garden Theater, King George II did what Händel already knew would happen: he stood up when he heard the second part of the Hallelujah — the most famous, and surely beautiful fragment of the entire oratorio — the King confused it with a hymn (hence, out of respect he was standing, since hymns are listened to standing up). All the assistants, imitating their monarch, also stood up. The story was later woven, that the sovereign was so enchanted by that piece that, jubilant, he got up and applauded at the end of the ‘Hallelujah,’ contrary to the custom of applauding only at the end of the entire work (more than two hours long). Knowing all this, George Frederick smiled triumphantly, with a devilish grimace drawn on his lips.
A few years before Händel’s death, his servant Christof made revelations; in a way I cannot tell how they reached me, but I am spreading the word now.
Although, at the time the servant said that he did not understand Italian and therefore, did not understand what Händel was talking about with a third party in the room; actually, Christof was afraid of saying such terrible things. However, after numerous pleadings made to Chistof, he dared to tell the story. In fact, he spoke Dante's language perfectly; he had served for two years at the monastery of San Benedetto in Subiaco, Italy.
The strange visitor who had conversed with Händel — whom no one saw entering or leaving the house — when he began to compose The Messiah, had offered him a pact, which the musician accepted. As George Frederick was extremely depressed at the time of receiving the commission, he had not fully recovered from a stroke (hemiplegia) and his debts did not allow him to concentrate, so he was not in any condition to undertake a work of such magnificence. Wine, on the other hand, was starting to wreak havoc. He had accepted a little reluctantly, because the offer came from Charles Jennens, someone he admired and to whom he owed a lot in every way. But when Händel sat down before the harpsichord, his inspiration did not come out. In the first two days of work, he had barely been able to finish the introduction and the first bars of the following recitative. He did not know what to do.
— I propose you a good deal, said the strange visitor.
— What is it about? — George Frederick answered surprised, somewhat incredulous, even fearful.
— In three weeks, you will finish the oratory, which will make you great, and your name will shine again.
— Impossible! An oratory as complex as this one that you ask of me, cannot be finished in such a short time. Absolutely impossible!
— For you it will be impossible. Not for me. Besides, I offer it to you because I know that it is possible.
— And what guarantee do I have for it?
— My word — said the visitor energetically.
— What do I get? — Händel said, scratching his head doubtfully.
— You will be the composer of one of the most famous musical pieces in history. Your name will be revered per saecula saeculorum.
George Frederick frowned. He did not dislike the idea, but he also did not believe in such gratuitous kindness. There was something tricky up there. He inquired provocatively:
— And what do you ask in exchange for that favour?
— That, in a piece of the work, the one that I promise you will be the most striking and with which we will confuse her Majesty, you mention me.
— That I mention you? Hmm... what should that piece say?
— Only one truth: “King of Kings, Lord of Lords, you will reign forever,” and repeat it continuously.
Händel smiled, adding almost sarcastically:
— I don't see it as a problem. On the contrary, it seems very good to me. But... why do you say that we will deceive the king?
— What I will make you write will be of such beauty and solemnity that George II will think it is a hymn, and he will stand up during the execution of it, and then he will clap furiously and give short jumps. That will make him the laughing stock of all Great Britain, although later the idea that he did it is woven by the emotion he felt when he heard the Hallelujah.
— Then? — George Frederick asked, still not understanding.
— In some other passage, which I will not reveal to you, and which you will also set to music with lavishness, with trumpets and timpani at full throttle along with the choirs and the orchestral mass, the lyrics, read from back to front — a palindrome — will say “this pig that confuses the music has its days numbered. The people will reign.”
— I do not understand you.
— We will make fun of this pig, this ignorant parasite, as all kings are. And if you know how to search between the lines, the play tells the story of how all these disgusting scourges will fall in Europe.
— Do you mean the monarchs?
— Exactly! That is why you were chosen, because you are not an underling who sleeps with the aristocracy. You work for the masses, that is why you are doing so badly financially now.
— But then… — Händel asked in amazement — who will reign forever and ever?
— Chistof did not know whether this was a delusion or a dream of his master, a real conversation he had with someone. The truth is that, while George Frederick was composing the work in question, the stench of sulphur that came out of his bedroom was unbearable.
The day he finished it, Händel came out exalted, with wild eyes shouting “I have seen the Lord!”