George Frideric Handel
When you hear the phrase “classical composer,” George Frideric Handel probably isn't the first name that comes to mind.
Nonetheless, he was one of the most successful composers of his era and produced a body of work that continues to inspire.
Today, he's famous for his oratorio Messiah. While alive, he mastered Italian opera.
An impressive feat considering he was born in Germany and later became a British citizen.
Besides opera, Handel mastered about every musical form popular in his day.
He took the best elements of his contemporaries' work and improved them by adding more vitality and depth.
Perhaps Handel's greatest accomplishment was the respect he fostered from other great composers.
Both Mozart and Beethoven publicly praised the baroque composer.
Handel came into this world on Feb. 23, 1685. He was born in Halle, Duchy of Magdeburg. Today, Halle is part of the German state Saxony-Anhalt.
At the time of his birth, his father, Georg Händel, was 63.
Georg Händel was a barber-surgeon employed by the court of Saxe-Weissenfels and the Margraviate of Brandenburg.
The elder Handel was not supportive of his young child's musical interests.
There's a story, probably embellished over the years, that Handel furtively practiced the keyboards in his attic, away from his father's unsupportive ears.
Sometime before turning ten, Handel played the organ in the palace chapel. The exact circumstances that led to Handel's performance are unknown.
The young Handel played so expertly that he impressed his father's boss, Duke Johann Adolf I. The duke suggested that Handel receive formal musical training.
Handel's father was in no position to argue with his royal employer and hired Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow.
Zachow was the only music teacher Handel ever knew.
Besides training in performance and theory, Zachow introduced Handel to wide array of musical styles and forms.
Many of the elements found in Handel's compositions can be traced to what he learned from Zachow.
Handel's time with Zachow was relatively short. Their relationship didn't sour. Handel just learned everything Zachow had to offer.
A bust of George Frideric Handel in the Foundling Museum, London.
Photo by Brian Roy Rosen
Handel's father perished in February of 1697. As was the custom of the era, Handel participated in the composing of odes to honor the deceased.
Handel signed his ode "dedicated to the liberal arts." The sentiment was a post-mortem dig at his father who wanted Handel to become a lawyer.
In 1702, Handel enrolled himself into the University of Halle.
Handel didn't study law at the university, but it's likely that he attended lectures on the subject. After all, the university employed a renowned liberal lawyer, Christian Thomasius.
Instead, Handel's studies consisted of a broad range of liberal arts classes. He was also influenced by several progressive-minded instructors.
Not long after beginning his studies at the University of Halle, Handel landed a job as organist at a local cathedral.
His new job came with a year-long probation. Shortly after the probation period ended, Handel found himself in Hamburg.
Why he moved there is unknown. Conventional wisdom says Handel relocated to Hamburg because it was a free city with a prominent opera company.
That prominent opera company went on to employ Handel as a violinist and harpsichordist.
In 1704, Handel wrote his first opera, Almira. It was produced the following year.
Almira sounded like an opera written by a 19-year-old rookie, but contained enough positive elements to foreshadow the composer's brilliance.
Handel followed Almira with the operas Nero, Daphne, and Florindo.
Handel traveled to Rome in 1706. Italy is synonymous with opera, but at the time, the Bishop of Rome forbid the medium.
Composers were getting around the papal ban by writing dramatic oratorios and cantatas. Basically, they were writing operas without theatrical staging.
Handel followed their lead and wrote the oratorios La resurrezione and Il trionfo del tempo. Both works were well-received.
In Florence, in 1707, Handel enjoyed his first all-Italian opera, Rodrigo.
In 1710, Handel became kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover (the future King of England). He immediately asked for, and received, a leave absence to travel to London.
Handel returned to Hanover in 1711, and then back to London, this time for good, in 1712.
During his first sojourn to London, Handel rapidly composed the opera Rinaldo. The work debuted at the Queen's Theatre in London's Haymarket in February of 1711.
In 1713, Handel was relinquished of his duties as kapellmeister. The following year, his former boss in Hanover ascended to the throne, becoming King George I.
The king, an ardent supporter of Handel, hired him back, doubled his salary, and paid him back wages.
Händel by Philippe Mercier - Handel House Museum
Handel was very successful in London. His operas and concerts were popular and greatly respected.
Handel also excelled at writing ceremonial music. His Water Music was written in 1717 for King George I, who desired a concert on the River Thames.
Some scholars believe Handel wrote Water Music as penance for abandoning his duties as kapellmeister. It appears no amends was needed. King George I had always been, and continued to be, a steadfast patron of the composer.
In 1727, Handel wrote four Coronation Anthems for George II. One of those anthems, Zadok the Priest, has been performed at every British crowning since.
Operas and Oratorios
Handel excelled at just about every musical form of his day, but his specialty was opera. And not just the music, Handel had a real knack for drama.
Between 1711 and 1741, Handel produced at least 36 Italian operas. Towards the end of this period, interest in Italian opera waned.
Furthermore, producing Italian operas was expensive; Handel was finding it harder and harder to turn a profit.
To compensate, Handel drew on what he learned while in Rome. He wrote oratorios, this time in English.
During this stage of his career, one of his first attempts at an oratorio, Saul, was a huge success. The opera was first produced in 1739.
Handel's last opera, Deidamia, was performed several times in 1741. After that, he abandoned the opera business for good.
In 1737, Handel suffered what modern doctors believe is a stroke. Four fingers on his right hand became unusable and he was forced to quit performing.
Remarkably, Handel recovered. Less than a year after his “stroke,” he composed the opera Serse.
Handel's quick recovery was assisted by a trip to a German spa. By the end of his six-week stay, he was serenading guests with his keyboard skills.
Handel's Messiah debuted in April of 1742. The text was compiled by Charles Jennens. He used the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.
Messiah is arguably Handel's greatest and best-known work. The public's initial reaction to it, however, was lukewarm. As time went by, the work grew in popularity and veneration.
Another interesting aspect of Messiah is its scope. Handel originally wrote the score for vocals and instruments on a modest scale. Future composers and arrangers expanded the masterpiece to increase its size and scope.
Handel wrote Messiah in 24 days. The rapidity in which he wrote the oratorio has led some to conclude it was the product of divine inspiration.
It wasn't unusual for Handel to compose with speed. In fact, it was common for most composers of his era to churn out works with tremendous alacrity.
In 1750, Handel produced a performance of Messiah to support the Foundling Hospital. It was so successful, and inspired future benefit performances, that Handel was made a governor of the institution.
Upon the composer's death, the Foundling Hospital received a manuscript of Messiah. Handel's involvement with the hospital is celebrated in the Foundling Museum located in London.
Blindness and Death
In 1751, Handel began to lose his eyesight due to cataracts. His blindness was accelerated by ill-advised cataract surgeries conducted by a dubious occultist.
By 1752, Handel was completely blind.
The composer died in 1759. He was 74. The last musical performance he experienced was his Messiah.
Handel was given full state honors and buried in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey. More than three thousand admirers attended his funeral service.
- Handel's Agrippina ran for 27 consecutive nights.
- In 1729, Handel became co-manager of The Queen's Theatre at the Haymarket. The theatre is now called Her Majesty's Theatre.
- Handel was an avid art collector. When he died, his collection contained more than 70 paintings.
- The Sinfonia that opens act three of his English oratorio, Solomon, was featured at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.
- Handel's aria “Ombra mai fù,” also known as "Handel's largo", was written for the Italian castrato, Caffarelli.
- At the end of his manuscript for Messiah, Handel wrote "SDG." The initials stand for “Soli Deo Gloria” which means "To God alone the glory.”
- Handel's original Messiah manuscript was 259 pages long.
- Handel never married.
- Handel became a British citizen in 1726.
- In 1760, John Mainwaring published a biography of Handel. Despite inaccuracies, Mainwaring's work was the first book devotedly entirely to a single composer.
- Handel had a great sense of humor, was very charitable, and held contempt for social ranks.
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