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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)


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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood