Handel, George Frederick

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Handel, George Frederick (1685-1759): German-English Composer.

With Bach, Johann Sebastian, Handel stands as one of the two greatest composers of the Baroque era. Born in Halle, Saxony, Handel demonstrated an early talent for music, which his father, a surgeon, who intended the boy to study Civil Law, tried to stifle. The youth was tenacious in his musical interests and eventually his father recanted, hiring a local musical director to train him. He enrolled in legal studies at Halle University in 1702, while simultaneously serving as organist at the (Calvinist) Reformed Cathedral. Ever ambitious, this peaceful existence failed to satisfy him for long, and in 1703 he sought greater opportunities in Hamburg.

He joined the Hamburg Opera orchestra, and composed four operas, among them Almira (1705), and various sonatas and vocal works. On the invitation of Ferdinando de’ Medici, heir to the dukedom of Tuscany, he visited Italy (1707-10). While touring the country, he composed many works noted for their tone colors and dramatic harmonies, for his several patrons in Florence, Naples, Venice, and Rome. He produced his first oratorios during this time, Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (1707) and La Resurrezione (1708). The Resurrection is still considered one of his outstanding creations, but his greatest success in this period was the opera Agrippina, produced in Venice during Carnival (1709-10).

In 1710, he took a position as director of music for the Court of Hanover, although he spent most of the coming years in England, presenting works at the Haymarket Theatre and at court. He was enormously successful in both venues, performing Rinaldo for the public, and compositions celebrating the Treaty of Utrecht to please Queen Anne. With the Queen’s death (1714), his Hanover employer, Elector George Louis, ascended the throne as George I. Thus, Handel was able to stay in England without neglecting his duties in Hanover.

In 1719, the Royal Academy of Music was founded. Handel served as director from 1720 to 1728, during which most of the operas staged there were Handel’s creations. But Italian opera began to decline in the early 1740s, and Handel turned to composing oratorios and incidental instrumental music in 1741. While most of the credit for the popularity of such works as L’Allegro (1742), Semele (1744), and the patriotic Judas Maccabaeus (1748) goes to Handel’s musical genius, such performances filled a unique gap in the cultural year; theatrical performances and opera were forbidden during Lent. Oratorios, with their religious subjects, found their way past the regulations and met with a mass of eager spectators, as the packed house for the premier of Messiah (1742), the most famous oratorio ever, attests. Handel produced his most enduring success with Messiah, which articulated, with greatest eloquence, the nature of English piety. It would, in 1750, become an annual benefit performance at the Foundling Hospital where Handel was a governor, and it has, since 1843, been primary to the repertoire of English choral societies.

While writing his last oratorio, Jepthe (1752), he began to go steadily blind. After this year, he produced very few works, though he continued to play organ concertos until his very last days. In sum, Handel composed 45 operas, 18 orchestral concertos, Concerti a due cori, suites (including the famous Water Music), several overtures, minuets, marches, and movements for orchestra and wind ensemble, chamber music, and over 250 movements for keyboard and solo.

Handel’s immense popularity came primarily from his ability to synthesize disparate musical influences into a personal style that reflected the best of Baroque composition. From Jean Baptiste Lully’s dramatic techniques, to the vocal strategies of Alessandro Scarlatti, he borrowed from the great musical and theatrical minds of Europe. Yet Handel was a shrewd survivor, wisely deserting Italian opera before its decline caused him to drift into obscurity. Again, he took the best of this dying form and filled his English oratorios with a glorious combination of dramatic subject, tales of heroism and sacrifice from the scriptures, and vividly detailed portraits of musical color and power.

Handel’s popularity made large choral works a major English musical form. Of the two Baroque giants, Handel was by far the more universally popular, having widened the appeal of music from a small circle of the elite, to the middle class public. His influence in composition can be immediately seen in the music of Haydn, Franz Joseph, Mozart, and Beethoven, Ludwig van, all of whom acknowledged the greatness and impact of George Frederick Handel.

Further Reading:

Donald Burrows, Handel, 1994.

Wendy Thompson, Handel, 1994.

Benjamin Fisler