Thursday, December 3, 2015

Reflections on Turning Seventy

Yesterday I celebrated my seventieth birthday. As I drove to my writers group, a short message on the radio interrupted my reflections about my life. The speaker said something to the effect that in the next few weeks, many thousands of us would be listening to the greatest oratorio of all time, Handel's Messiah.

My thoughts flew back to my senior year of high school in Seward, Alaska, when I sang The Messiah for the first time, including the soprano solos, in the combined local church choirs under the direction of the high school music teacher. I fell in love with the soaring music. Singing the libretto that came straight from the Bible imprinted those Scriptures upon my memory.

In college, I majored in vocal music. Every year, we performed The Messiah. I even included an aria from The Messiah, "If God Be for Us, Who Can Be Against Us," in the program of my senior recital.

Portrait of George Frideric Handel
Courtesy of
Somewhere along the way, I learned the story behind the composing of The Messiah. George Frideric Handel was a child prodigy. His father tried to steer him into the legal profession, but the organ, harpsichord, and violin captured his attention. Once when young George was improvising on the organ, Duke Johann Adolf overheard it and exclaimed, "Who is that remarkable child?"

Soon, Handel began composing operas, first in Italy then in London. While only in his twenties, he became the talk of England and the best paid composer on earth. Every one of his performances was sold out. His fame spread worldwide. He started the Royal Academy of Music.

But the glory didn't last. (It never does, does it?) Attendance dwindled. His music was considered to be outdated. (I can certainly identify with that.) Younger musicians eclipsed the aging composer.

Handel continued to compose, but each new project failed. Soon, his money was gone. All the stress caused a palsy that crippled some of his fingers, a death knell for an organist. A sense of failure pushed him into the further agony of depression.

Yet, his troubles matured him. His sharp tongue softened. His temper mellowed. And his music showed a depth of feeling as never before.

In 1741, Handel received a post from Charles Jennens. It contained a word-for-word collection of biblical texts about Christ. As Handel read the opening words from Isaiah 40, "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people...," he was so moved that he began to compose music for the passage. In 23 days, he set the entire collection to music and called it The Messiah.

Handel's Original Score of the "Amen Chorus"
Courtesy of
Composing such a massive work in 23 days is unheard of. Trying to describe the experience later, Handel said, "Whether I was in the body or out of the body when I wrote it, I know not."

The Messiah opened in London to huge crowds on March 23, 1743, with Handel conducting from his harpsichord. King George II was present. As the choir sang the immortal words to the Hallelujah Chorus, the king leaped to his feet in recognition of the "King of kings and Lord of lords."

My copy of The Messiah
Handel's fame was rekindled. His best days came after the trials of life had matured him. Few people can name one of his operas. But to this day, The Messiah is the world's most often performed oratorio, and audiences everywhere stand in reverence to the King who "shall reign forever and ever."

Yesterday, the memory of Handel's story renewed my spirit. I may be seventy, but perhaps my best and most productive days are still ahead.

Have you ever felt that your best days are behind you? How do you encourage yourself when you feel down? I'd love to read your comments.

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  1. Thanks for this informative post, AnnaLee.

  2. You are welcome, Deb. Handel' s story has always been an inspiration to me.