How a musical epiphany saved Handel from ruin and despair

Handel did not praise his own works but there was one that he loved, Messiah, because in it he had redeemed himself.


Consuming passions: Handel’s appetite was as great as his talent, as depicted in Joseph Goupy’s etching The Charming Brute. Image: Bridgeman Art Library.

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was a prolific writer of fiction, journalism, biographies and plays. Born in Vienna to non-religious Jewish parents, he was a friend of Sigmund Freud, Richard Strauss and Theodor Herzl, among others. During the First World War, he became a pro-European pacifist; with the rise of Hitler, he fled first to England, then to New York and finally to Brazil, where he committed suicide with his wife in despair at world events. Zweig was fascinated by music and he provided the libretto for Strauss’s “Die Schweigsame Frau”, which, because Zweig was Jewish, was banned after four performances. Zweig also published a collection of “historical miniatures” about moments of genius and heroism, including this account of Handel’s composition of “Messiah”, printed here in a new translation – the first in over 70 years – by Anthea Bell.

On the afternoon of 13 April 1737, George Frideric Handel’s manservant was sitting at the ground-floor window of the house in Brook Street, very strangely occupied. He had found, to his annoyance, that his supply of tobacco had run out but he dared not leave the house. Handel had come home from rehearsal in a rage, his face bright red, the veins standing out like thick cords at his temples. He was now marching up and down on the first floor so vigorously that the ceiling was shaking: it was unwise to be negligent in his service on days when he was in such a fury. So the servant was seeking diversion from his boredom by puffing not elegant rings of blue smoke from his short clay pipe, but soap bubbles. He was amusing himself by blowing the brightly coloured bubbles out of the window and into the street.

Passers-by stopped, bursting a bubble here and there with their canes in jest as they laughed and waved, but they showed no surprise. For anything might be expected of this house: the harpsichord might suddenly play loud music by night; you might hear prima donnas sobbing as the choleric German, falling into a berserk rage, uttered threats against them for singing an eighth of a tone too high or too low. The neighbours in Grosvenor Square had long considered 25 Brook Street a madhouse.

The servant blew his bright bubbles silently and persistently. Then he suddenly gave a start of alarm as a dull thud made the whole house shake. The manservant jumped up and raced upstairs. He saw Handel lying motionless on the floor, eyes open and staring. The strong man was lying on his back groaning, or rather the groans were forcing their way out of him in short and increasingly weak grunts.

Now up from the floor below came Johann Christoph Schmidt, the master’s secretary and assistant. The two of them raised the weight of the man – his arms dangling limp, like those of a corpse – and laid him on the sofa. “Undress him,” Schmidt ordered the servant. “I’ll run for the doctor.”

Schmidt ran out without his coat, waving to all the coaches that trotted sedately by. At last, one of them stopped. Lord Chandos’s coachman had recognised Schmidt. “Handel is dying!” he cried out to the duke, whom he knew to be his beloved master’s best patron. The duke immediately told him to get into the coach, the horses were given a sharp crack of the whip, and they went to fetch Dr Jenkins from a room in Fleet Street where he was earnestly studying a urine sample. “It’s all the trouble he’s had that’s to blame,” lamented the secretary despondently. “They’ve plagued him to death, those damned singers and castrati, the scribblers and the carping critics, the whole wretched crew.”

In the house, the servant held the basin, Schmidt lifted Handel’s arm and the doctor cut into the vein. A jet of blood spurted up, hot, bright red blood, and the next moment a sigh of relief issued from the compressed lips. Handel took a deep breath and opened his eyes. They were still weary, faraway and unaware. The light in them was extinguished. Dr Jenkins bent lower. He saw that one eye, the right eye, was staring while the other looked livelier. He raised Handel’s right arm. It fell back as if dead. Then he raised the left arm. The left re­mained in its new position. Now Dr Jenkins knew enough.

When he had left the room Schmidt followed him to the stairs. “What is it?”

“Apoplexy. His right side is paralysed.”

“And will he – will he at least be able to work again? He can’t live without com­posing.”

Dr Jenkins was already on the stairs.

“No, he will never work again,” he said very quietly. “We may be able to save the man, but we have lost the musician.”

Schmidt stared at him with such despair in his eyes that the doctor felt stricken.

For four months Handel lived devoid of strength. The right half of his body remained dead. He could not walk, he could not write, he could not play a single note on the keyboard. He could not speak. When friends made music for him a little light came into his eyes and then his unwieldy body moved like that of a sick man in a dream. Finally the doctor, in desperation – for the maestro was obviously incurable – advised sending him to the hot baths at Aachen.

But under the frozen envelope there lived an incalculable strength. The huge man had not given up and, against the laws of nature, his will worked a miracle. The doctors at Aachen warned him not to stay in the hot baths for more than three hours at a time;  his heart would not survive any longer period, they said, and it could kill him. But his will defied death for the sake of life. To the horror of his doctors, Handel spent nine hours a day in the baths and with his will his strength grew. After a week he could drag himself around again; after a second week he could move his arm and he tore himself free from the paralysing toils of death.

On the last day before he was to leave Aachen, fully in control of his body, Handel stopped outside  the church. He had never been particularly devout, but now, as he climbed to the organ loft, he felt moved by something ineffable.

He touched the keys with his left hand. The notes sounded, ringing clear and pure. Now he tentatively tried the right hand that had been closed so long. And behold, the silver spring of sound leaped out. Slowly, he began to play, to improvise, and the great torrent of sound carried him away with it. Down below, anonymous, the nuns and worshippers listened. They had never heard a mortal man play like that before. Handel, his head humbly bent, played on and on. He had recovered the language in which he spoke to God, to eternity, to mankind.

“I have come back from Hades,” said George Frideric Handel proudly. The battle lust of old had returned to the 53-year-old musician. We find him now writing an opera, a second opera, a third, the great oratorios Saul and Israel in Egypt; he writes L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato; his creative desires well up as if from a long-dammed spring. But the times are against him. The queen’s death halts theatrical performances, then the Spanish war begins, the theatre remains empty and debts mount up. Such cold falls over London that the Thames freezes over. Next the singers fall ill.

Handel’s financial difficulties grow worse and worse. His creditors are dunning him, the critics are scathing, the public remains silent and indifferent, and gradually the struggling composer loses heart. A benefit performance has just saved him from im­prisonment for debt, but what a disgrace, to buy back his life as a beggar! Handel becomes more and more reclusive, his mind grows ever darker. In the year 1740 he feels a beaten, defeated man once more. His former fame is dust and ashes. Why, he sighs, did God let me rise from my sickbed if men are to bury me once more? A lost man, weary of himself, Handel wanders London by night. Sometimes he stops outside a church, sometimes he sits in a tavern, and sometimes he stares down from a bridge over the Thames and wonders whether it might not be better to cast off all his cares by making one determined leap.

One night he had been wandering in this way again. It was 21 August 1741 and the day had been warm and sultry. No one was still awake in the house in Brook Street. He used to come home from every walk with a melody, but now his desk was empty. There was nothing to begin, nothing to finish. Or no: not bare! There was a package and he quickly broke the seal. A letter lay on top from the poet Charles Jennens, who wrote to say that he was sending Handel  a new poem and he hoped the great genius of music, phoenix musicae, would look graciously on his poor words and carry them up on his wings through the ether of immortality. Handel started as if something terrible had touched him. Did this man mean  to mock him? He tore the letter in two. “The blackguard! The scoundrel!” he bellowed. Tears broke from his eyes and his body trembled with impotent rage. The disturbed, ruined man lay heavily on his bed.

But he could not sleep. Handel rose, went back into his study and once again lit the candle. Messiah, read the first page. He turned over the title leaf and began to read. At the first words he started up. “Comfort ye,” began the libretto. It was like magic, that phrase – no, not a phrase, it was an answer divinely given, the cry of an angel calling from the overcast skies to his heart. Handel heard the phrase as music, as hovering, calling, rushing, singing notes.

His hands shook as he turned page after page. Yes, he had been called, summoned. Every word entered into him with irresist­ible force. All his weariness was gone. Never before had he felt his powers so strongly, never before known the joy of creation streaming through him like this. Again and again the words poured over him like warm, redeeming light. And suddenly he shivered, for there, in the hand of poor Jennens, he read: “The Lord gave the word.”

He held his breath. Here was the truth: the Lord had given him the word; and behold, there the word was written, there it rang out, a word that could be repeated and transformed for ever: “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”

Tears blurred Handel’s eyes, so mighty was the fervour in him. Hastily, he picked up his pen and began setting down notes. He could not stop. It carried him away, like a ship with all sails spread, running before a stormy wind.

When his manservant cautiously entered the room the next morning, Handel was still sitting at his desk writing. He did not reply when Schmidt timidly asked whether he could be of any help in copying the music, just uttered a low growl. No one ventured to approach him again and he did not leave the study for three weeks. Handel knew nothing of the hour in those weeks. He lived entirely in the sphere that measures time only by musical beat and rhythm; he moved only with the current that surged from him as the work flowed closer to the sacred rapids of its conclusion.

At last, on 14 September, the work was finished. What before had been only dry, sere language now  blossomed and sang, never to fade. The miracle of the will had been worked by the inspired soul, just as the paralysed body had once worked the miracle of resurrection. Handel rose to his feet, with difficulty. The pen dropped from his hand. The strength had gone out of him. His body was tired, his mind confused. He fell on his bed and slept like the dead.

His manservant knocked softly at the door three times that morning but no sound could penetrate the depths of that sleep. Handel lay motionless, like a dead hero on the field of battle after gaining the victory. When Handel still would not wake in the evening – he had been lying there for 17 hours – Schmidt went for the doctor again. He did not find him immediately, for Dr Jenkins had gone out to fish on the banks of the Thames. At last, though, the pony trotted off to Brook Street with the pair of them.

But there stood the manservant, waving to them with both arms. “He got up!” he shouted. “And now he’s eating like six porters. He ate half a Yorkshire ham in no time at all. I’ve had to pour him four pints  of beer, and still he asks for more.”

Sure enough, there sat Handel before a groaning board, like the Lord of Misrule. No sooner did he set eyes on the doctor than he began to laugh, and gradually it became a vast, an echoing, a booming, a hyperbolical laughter. “Devil take me!” cried Dr Jenkins in amazement.

Handel looked at him with a smile, his eyes sparkling. Slowly, he rose and went over to the harpsichord. He sat down, and softly, half speaking and half singing, began the melody of the recitative “Behold, I tell you a mystery” – the words from Messiah. But as soon as he brought his fingers down the music carried him away. On he played and on, singing, all the way to the final “Amen, amen, amen”. The room was almost shattered by those notes. Dr Jenkins stood there as if benumbed. And when finally Handel rose, the doctor remarked, with awkward admiration: “Good heavens, I never heard anything like that before. You must have been possessed by the Devil!” Handel turned away and said so softly that the others could hardly hear it: “No, I think it was God who possessed me.”

Several months later, two well-dressed gentlemen knocked at the door of the house in Abbey Street, Dublin, that he was then renting. They had heard that he meant to give the premiere of his new oratorio, Messiah here, even before London heard it. They had  come to ask whether the master might not  donate the takings of that premiere to the Society for Relieving Prisoners and to the sick in Mercer’s Hospital. But, of course, they  said, this donation would be the proceeds of the first performance only; profits from the others would still go to the master.

“No,” Handel said quietly, “no money for this work. I will never take money for it, never. It shall always go to the sick and the prisoners. For I was sick myself, and it cured me; I was a prisoner and it set me free.”

At last, on 7 April 1742, came the final rehearsal. The audience consisted of a few relations of the members of the chorus. A  couple here, a little group there sat dispersed  in isolation around the hall. But as soon as the choruses began to crash out like great  cataracts of sound, a strange thing happened. The separate groups involuntarily moved closer together on the benches, gradually forming a single dark block, listening spell­bound. When the “Hallelujah!” burst out for the first time it brought one man to his feet and all the others rose, too, as if at a signal; they felt you could not remain earthbound in the grip of such power, and stood to bring their voices a little nearer God. Then they went out to tell the news from door to door: a work of music had been written such as had never been heard on earth.

Six days later a crowd gathered outside the doors of the hall. The ladies had come without hoops in their skirts, the gentlemen wore no swords, so that there would be room for more people. Not a breath was to be heard when the music began. Then the choruses burst out with hurricane force and hearts began to tremble. Handel stood by the organ. He had intended to direct and conduct his work but he lost himself in it. The music became as strange to him as if he had never heard it before. And when the “amen” was raised at the end, his lips unconsciously opened and he sang with the chorus, sang as he had never sung in his life.

The floodgates were open. The river of music flowed on in him year after year. From now on, nothing could bow Handel, nothing could force the resurrected man back on to his knees. Once again the operatic society he had founded went bankrupt, once again his creditors came dunning him, but now he stood upright and survived all his trials. Old age gradually undermined his strength, weakened his arms. Gout afflicted his legs. At last his eyesight failed. But even with blind eyes, like Beethoven with deaf ears, still he wrote on.

Handel did not praise his own works but there was one that he loved, Messiah, because in it he had redeemed himself. Year after year he performed the work in London, always donating the proceeds, £500 each time, for the benefit of the hospital. On 6 April 1759, severely ill and 74 years old, he had himself led to the podium of Covent Garden once more.

There the blind man stood. He swung his arms in time. He sang as gravely and devoutly with the chorus as if he were standing, priestlike, at the head of his own coffin. Only once, when the trumpets sud­denly came in at the words “The trumpet shall sound”, did he start, looking up with his blind eyes as if he were ready now for  the Last Judgement.

Moved, his friends led the blind man home. They, too, felt it had been a farewell. On his bed, he was still quietly moving his lips. He would like to die on Good Friday, he murmured. This Good Friday would be 13 April, the date when the heavy hand had struck him down, the date when his Messiah was first performed. On the day when all  in him had died, he had risen again.

And sure enough, his unique will had power over death as well as life. On 13 April Handel’s strength left him. But as the empty seashell echoes to the roaring of the sea, so inaudible music surged within him, stranger and more wonderful than any he had ever heard. Slowly, its urgent swell freed the soul from the weary body, carrying it up into the weightless empyrean, flowing in the flow, eternal music in the eternal sphere. And on the next day, before the Easter bells began to ring, all that had been mortal in George Frideric Handel died at last. 

This is an edited excerpt from “The Resurrection of George Frideric Handel” in “Shooting Stars: Ten Historical Miniatures” by Stefan Zweig (Pushkin Press, £14.99)