Guest Post: The Messiah, An Anniversary That Also Celebrates Philanthropy

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

 Most people think of Handel's Messiah as English Christmas music, but in reality it premiered on Good Friday in 1742, and not in England but in Dublin, Ireland.  Handel wrote it when he was down and out, but when he got back on top he used Messiah's profits for good causes. Here's the story:

George Frederick Handel was born in Halle, Germany to a wealthy faHandelmily, and his musical genius was "discovered" by a nobleman when he was 11 years old. He composed his first opera at age 18; and in 1710, moved to London and jumped on a new type of composition: oratorios (a type of choral music that tells a story). Handel flourished in London and made a good living selling subscriptions to his oratorios.

But, it was when he was at his lowest that he wrote the Messiah, one of his most glorious oratorios. Burnt out from business failures and a stroke at age 52, he went to Dublin for the winter in 1741 to recover at the home of friends, and wrote the Messiah in just 24 days -- by hand, using a quill pen.

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' and the ladies to attend without hoops under their skirts [so more people could fit in the concert hall]. Seven hundred people filled a room designed for 600 and made Messiah a musical and philanthropic success.

Over the years, Handel continued to donate profits from performances of the Messiah and other works 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 (about $185,000 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 -- about $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 will celebrate the 252nd anniversary of Handel’s death on Thursday, April 14. People committed to justice for prisoners, retirement benefits for musicians, and healthcare for homeless children can be celebrating on the same day.

--  Joan Flanagan, Development Director for Interfaith Worker Justice.  A popular trainer for Donors Forum, Joan is next scheduled to teach Fundraising for Smaller Organizations and Congregations on Tuesday, April 19, 2011.  You can register now for only $64 for Forum Partners; $90 for others.

Parts of this article were posted in 2009 on