Fanny Crosby vs. G.F. Handel

We started this little competition on Ash Thursday with 32 saints. After today's vote, the field will have been whittled down to 16 remaining saintly souls. But in order to get there we must first make it through the Battle of the Bands as Fanny Crosby faces G.F. Handel. Who will retain the last seat in the Saintly Sixteen before the music stops? Well, that, as always, is up to you.

Yesterday, in the tightest race of Lent Madness 2017, Sarah the Matriarch barely laughed away a valiant challenge from Elizabeth Ann Seton 51% to 49%. See, what have we been saying all along? Your vote counts!

Fanny Crosby

Fanny Crosby wrote more than eight thousand sacred texts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Referred to as the Queen of Gospel Song Writers, she is arguably the most prolific author of American hymns and gospel songs.

Born in 1820 in Brewster, New York, Fanny caught a cold as an infant and developed inflammation in her eyes, which resulted in full-scale blindness. She would later remark, “It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life, and I thank him for the dispensation. If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow, I would not accept it. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me.” Around her fifteenth birthday, Crosby enrolled at the New York Institution for the Blind, and she began to write hymns and gospel songs.

Crosby attended multiple churches, including an Episcopal church, but she is most closely identified with the Wesleyan Holiness movement. She formally joined Cornell Memorial Methodist Episcopal in 1887. Her hymn texts became so popular that composers of that era would seek her out to find lyrics for their melodies—a reversal of the typical hymn-writing process. Her best-known text, “Blessed Assurance,” was written in this way during a visit to Phoebe Knapp’s home after Crosby heard the tune for the first time.

Crosby described her hymn-writing process by saying, “It may seem a little old-fashioned, always to begin one’s work with prayer, but I never undertake a hymn without first asking the good Lord to be my inspiration.” Crosby could often write six or seven hymns a day, rivaling the output of prolific hymn writers Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley.

While known as a hymn-writer, Crosby was committed to helping others, often donating the proceeds from her writing to rescue missions around New York City. Known as “Aunt Fanny” by the numerous missions she contributed to around the city, she died in 1915. At her request, her tombstone reads: “Aunt Fanny: She hath done what she could; Fanny J. Crosby.”

Collect for Fanny Crosby 
O God, the blessed assurance of all who trust in you: We give you thanks for your servant Fanny Crosby, and pray that we, inspired by her words and example, may rejoice to sing ever of your love, praising our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

— David Sibley

G.F. Handel

George Frideric (or Frederick) Handel was born on February 23, 1685, in Halle, Germany. Handel showed a propensity for music at an early age. However, his father forbade him from dabbling in music, dreaming instead that his son would one day become a civil attorney. Handel did not listen. It is said that Handel (or his mother) smuggled a small clavichord into his room, and he practiced in secret.

On a visit to see his uncle (who was a valet for a duke), Handel surprised the duke with his skills on an organ. The duke persuaded Handel’s father to allow his son to continue studying music. Handel rapidly mastered the pipe organ, harpsichord, oboe, flute, and violin. That mastery led to a prolific writing life that included 42 operas, 29 oratorios, more than 100 cantatas, trios, duets, arias, chamber music, a large number of ecumenical pieces, odes and serenatas, and 16 organ concerti.

Handel initially struggled to establish himself, beginning his career as a church organist and writing pieces that are lost to the world today. Then he became a violinist, supplementing his income as a music teacher. His fame began to grow when he transitioned his main instruments to the organ and harpsichord. Following stints as a musician, he began a foray into composition. His first operatic debut, Almira, was wildly popular. Following two more operas in Hamburg, Handel became dissatisfied with the German music scene. He traveled to Italy and ultimately made his home in London.

He was commissioned to write an oratorio about the Bible, and in 1742, Handel’s Messiah debuted on the New Music Hall Stage in Dublin, Ireland. Often considered Handel’s most famous work, Messiah is frequently classified as Christmas music, out of a mistaken belief that it commemorates Christ’s birth. Messiah was in fact written as an ode to all of Christ’s life—annunciation, nativity, passion, and resurrection—proclaiming salvation for all who believe.

Handel died on April 14, 1759. At the time of his death, Handel was completely blind. His life was celebrated in a state funeral with full honors at Westminster Abbey. Handel is honored with a feast day in the Episcopal, Lutheran, and Methodist churches on July 28.

Collect for G.F. Handel
Almighty God, beautiful in majesty and majestic in holiness, you gave to your musician George Frederick Handel grace to show forth your glory in music: may we also be moved to sound out your praises as a foretaste of your eternal glory; through Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

— Anna Fitch Courie

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Fanny Crosby—Unknown Artist, Public domain, Project Guttenberg
G.F. Handel—Balthasar Denner, CC0 via Wikimedia Commons


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317 comments on “Fanny Crosby vs. G.F. Handel”

  1. I have to go with the classics, and one cannot get more classical than Handel. Can never get enoigh of that glorious music.

  2. I see what you did there ~ two composers, both became blind ... But they are not in the same league, seriously! --- Handel, obviously!!!

  3. It's Fanny today! I learned about Miss Crosby at my mother's knee and ONLY Fanny J. Crosby songs were used in my mother's funeral at her bequest, she even had a list for us to use.

  4. While I love Handel's music, learning about Crosby's prayer before writing, appreciation for her blindness in allowing her to do what God called her to and her devotion to her work is inspiring.

  5. Is there a professional sadist in a backroom somewhere making up these evil wicked matchups?! The choices are never all that easy, but the "Battle of the Bands" was rougher than usual. I almost always pick the woman if I have no other way to pick, but today I went Handel. "Messiah" was my first breakout from "kids' choir music" and probably a big reason I've never stopped singing for long.

    1. How about the year when the brothers Wesley were opposed in the first round? Every year, it seems we get at least 1 such pairing. Sadism? Hmmm....

    1. Join the choir and you almost certainly will be able to sing along with at least some of it.

      While I am a fierce partisan and admirer of G.F. Handel, I think I speak for many in church music ministries when we wish for an Easter morning service that does not feature the *H-Word* Chorus.

  6. Fanny because she thanked God for her blindness feeling that sight would have dimmed her devotion. And she used her earnings to help those in need, too.

  7. This is nearly as tough as yesterday's vote - this time I'm voting for the underdog, Fanny, as I live a stone's throw from her birthplace.

  8. I agree with Susan Fisher. When I saw this matchup, I said, "who does this?" They're both amazing. I grew up with my Dad playing Handel's Messiah every Sunday on the stereo while we got ready for church. Then, at church, we''d probably sing a song written by Fanny Crosby! I had to go with Fanny.

  9. Hey, SEC you're mixing your metaphors! Battle of the Bands and Musical Chairs! BTW, I had to vote for my homegirl Fanny - Go NY!

  10. I pondered this vote for a while. Both are worthy. I finally voted for Handel because his work continues to speak to many beyond his time, place, language, religion.

  11. This lifelong church musician voted Crosby. She did important stuff. Händel wrote some lovely opera and is most famous for a rather tedious (at least to perform) oratorio. Easy choice.

  12. Handel wrote the music and often the words, and at least wove his music into the words so they would sing in our hearts forever. I had not heard of Fanny - in another match-up she'd get my vote - and I honor her work. May they both continue to sing with us.
    Handel for me.

  13. Tough choice. I loved Fanny's collect, and thought that would break the tie, but then read Handel's, and his was equally musical. Finally chose Fanny, cause she was a New Yorker. I always root for the home team.

  14. Another tough choice!! Went with Fanny because I felt that not only did she compose hymns for congregations, she also had a strong faith and mercy to the less fortunate.

  15. I'm sorry, but so much of what Fanny wrote strikes me as so schmaltzy that it loses much of its sincerity. Sort of like if Eddie Haskell started writing hymn texts. Herr Handel for me today.

    1. I'm with Kelley here. Although I know all verses of "Blessed Assurance" by heart, Handel's music speaks to the deepest parts of my soul. I still can't read parts of the Bible without hearing the "Messiah" in the background of my mind.

    2. I such a sucker for a smart ass. Thank you for the Eddie Haskell reference. Keeping it real.

    3. I so agree about the music quality. But trying to set aside my personal preferences and look at the qualities of the writers. Still thinking at 8 pm.

  16. Devastated over the loss of Mother Seton yesterday...yet I will press on! Today I vote for Handel....Halleluiah!!

    1. I am with you, Kandice. Had so hoped Mother Seton would pull ahead.
      And now for today ... As one who has visited Hamburg several times and has a dear friend there, I must vote for Handel. I also prefer classical music to the old-time form of hymns. They are dear in their own way, but Handel's work is glorious. I also feel I must celebrate a man who listened to his most authentic self and followed that leading. It is a hard thing for any of us to do. Handel it is! The A-word.

  17. I'm really touched by the fact that Fanny prayed before starting to work on a hymn. This is a great reminder that we should seek Christ's guidance and blessing in all of our endeavors.

  18. Voted for Fanny, as my strategy this year with Lent Madness is to support the lesser knowns. Celebrated Bach's 332nd birthday yesterday so Handel clearly is well known and loved for his musical gifts and talents. All the best to Aunt Fanny today!

    1. You mentioned Bach's birthday -- it's fine to celebrate it on either 21 or 31 March. The church records of his birth in 1685 show 21, using the "Old System" (Julian calendar), but the switch to the Gregorian calendar ("New System") makes that date 31 instead. The same thing goes for G. F. Handel, on either 23 February (OS) or 5 March (NS). I think we don't know which dates Johann and George used. Switching the calendars was a long process (over 300 years) due to political and religious rivalries. No such puzzle exists for Fanny Crosby, whose birthday we can celebrate on Friday.

  19. As a Teacher of the Visually Impaired, in honor of all my students and former students: go, Fanny!

  20. I'm stunned by the number of people who never heard of Fanny Crosby. And while I love the Messiah and appreciate the talents of Handel, it was Fanny's attitude toward life despite her circumstances that clinched my vote for her. [By the way, if you ever have the chance to see "Blessed Assurance" signed by a skilled deaf interpreter you will never forget it.]

  21. To be blunt about it, I'm seeing this as a choice between quality of music or quality of life. Fanny lived a holy life, unlike Georg. But Georg (using the German spelling) wrote such stunningly beautiful and superb music. The Messiah is one of my desert island things. So do I vote for the jerk who was a genius, or the holy woman who wasn't?

    1. Freeman, what do you mean when you say that Handel didn't lead "a holy life"? Are you referring to his famously short temper? Years ago I read an account of an altercation he had with a male singer : The man threatened to seize Handel's violin and jump up and down on it until it was destroyed. Handel replied "Pray do so, sir. I'll wager more people will come to see you jump than to hear you sing."
      In an earlier post I quoted Patrick Kavanaugh's "Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers". Another quote from that work: "A confirmed bachelor, Handel was reputed to swear in several languages when moved to wrath (usually by singers). At the same time, he was equally quick to admit his own fault and apologize."
      "Handel personally conducted more than thirty performances of 'Messiah'. Many of these concerts were benefits for the Foundling Hospital, of which Handel was a major benefactor."
      "Known universally for his generosity and concern for those who suffered, Handel donated freely to charities even in times when he faced personal financial ruin."
      "Handel's morals were above reproach."
      Like all Christians, he had his faults. But in spite of them, he strove to follow his Lord as best he could.

  22. I love Messiah. I love it at Christmas, I love it at Easter, and I'll probably be listening to it at work today, thanks to Lent Madness. But I'm voting for Fanny. Not so much for Blessed Assurance, but for Do Not Pass Me By (which probably isn't the name of the hymn). I first heard that hymn at a very dark time in my life, and singing it was the closest I could come to praying for a while. So this cradle Episcopalian, who never sang one of Fanny's hymns in church, is voting for her with gratitude.

  23. Love Handel but Aunt Fanny makes ME sing! Will be humming Blessed Assurance all day now that the brain worm is there-- not that I mind 'cause it will make me mindful of my wonderful childhood singing 'sing-able' hyms.