George Frideric Handel
George Frideric Handel (23 February 1685 – 14 April 1759) was a German-born British Baroque composer who was a leading composer of concerti grossi, operas and oratorios. Born in Germany as Georg Friedrich Handel, he lived most of his adult life in England, becoming a subject of the British crown on 22 January 1727. His most famous work is Messiah, an oratorio set to texts from the King James Bible; other well-known works are Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks. He deeply influenced many composers who came after him, including Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and his work helped lead the transition from the Baroque to the Classical era.
Handel was born in Halle at Saxony-Anhalt to Georg and Dorothea (nйe Taust) Handel in 1685, the same year that both Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti were born. He displayed considerable musical talent at an early age; by the age of seven he was a skillful performer on the harpsichord and pipe organ, and at nine he began to compose music. However, his father, an eminent barber-surgeon who served as valet and barber to the Courts of Saxony and Brandenburg, as well as a distinguished citizen of Halle, was opposed to George Frideric pursuing a musical career, preferring him to study law, whereas his mother, Dorothea, encouraged him in his music.
Nevertheless, the young Handel was permitted to take lessons in musical composition and keyboard techniques from Friedrich Wilhelm Zachau, the organist of the Liebfrauenkirche, Halle. His aunt, Anna, had given him a spinet, an early harpsichord with a single keyboard and only one string for each note, for his seventh birthday, which they moved into the attic and he went there to play it whenever he could.
In 1702, in obedience to his father‘s wishes, he began the study of law at the University of Halle, but after his father‘s death the following year, he abandoned law for music, becoming the organist at the Protestant Cathedral. The following year he moved to Hamburg, accepting a position as violinist and harpsichordist in the orchestra of the opera-house. Here his first two operas, Almira and Nero, were produced early in 1705. Two other early operas, Daphne and Florindo, were produced at Hamburg in 1708.
During the years 1707–1709 Handel traveled and studied in Italy. When opera was banned by local authorities, Handel found work as a composer of sacred music and wrote some pieces in operatic style. The famous Dixit Dominus (1707) is from this era. His Rodrigo was produced in Florence in 1707, and his Agrippina at Venice in 1709. Agrippina, which ran for an unprecedented 27 performances, exhibited a mature technique in Handel‘s writing and established his reputation as an opera composer. Two oratorios, La Resurrezione and Il Trionfo del Tempo, were produced at Rome in 1709 and 1710, respectively.
In 1710 Handel became Kapellmeister to George, Elector of Hanover, who would soon be King George I of Great Britain. He visited London in 1710 and settled there permanently in 1712, receiving a yearly income of Ј200 from Queen Anne.
In 1723 Handel moved into a newly built house in Brook Street, London, where he rented until his death 36 years later. The Handel House Museum is now a restored Georgian house open to the public with an events programme of Baroque music.
In 1726 Handel‘s opera Scipio (Scipione) was performed for the first time, the march from which remains the regimental slow march of the British Grenadier Guards. He was naturalised a British subject in the following year.
In 1727 Handel was commissioned to write four anthems for the coronation ceremony of King George II. One of these, Zadok the Priest, has been also played at every coronation ceremony since. Handel was director of the Royal Academy of Music 1720–1728, and a partner of J. J. Heidegger in the management of the King‘s Theatre 1729–1734. Handel also had a long association with the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, where many of his Italian operas were premiered. Handel gave up operatic management entirely in 1740, after he had lost a fortune in the business.
In April 1737, aged 52, he suffered a stroke or other injury which left his right arm temporarily paralysed and stopped him from performing. He also complained that he had trouble focusing after the event.
In 1750 Handel arranged a performance of The Messiah in aid of the Foundling Hospital. In recognition of his patronage Handel was made a governor of the Hospital bequething to it a collection of his manuscripts including a fair copy of The Messiah.
In August, 1750, on a journey back from Germany to London, Handel was seriously injured in a carriage accident between The Hague and Haarlem in the Netherlands.
In 1751 he started turning blind, and by age 65 was completely blind in one eye. The cause was unknown and progressed into his other eye as well. He died some eight years later,in 1759, in London, his last attended performance being his own Messiah. He had more than 3,000 mourners attending at his funeral—which was given full state honours—and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Handel never married, and kept his personal life very private. Unlike many composers, he left a sizable estate at his death, worth Ј20,000 (a rather enormous amount for the day), the bulk of which he left to a niece in Germany, as well as leaving gifts to his other relations, servants, friends and favourite charities.
Handel has generally been accorded a high esteem from fellow composers, both in his own time and since. Bach apparently said "[Handel] is the only person I would wish to see before I die, and the only person I would wish to be, were I not Bach." Mozart is reputed to have said of him "Handel understands effect better than any of us. When he chooses, he strikes like a thunder bolt", and to Beethoven he was "the master of us all", and emphasised above all, the simplicity and popular appeal of Handel‘s music when he said "go to him to learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means".
In the twenty-first century, we are still making progress into the performance practices of Handel‘s day, leading us to a deeper and more rounded understanding of Handel‘s music. Admired for his grand and often dramatic style, Handel‘s status as one of the ‘greats‘ is very much deserved.
He is commemorated as a musician in the Calendar of Saints of the Lutheran Church on July 28 with Johann Sebastian Bach and Heinrich Schutz.
Handel‘s compositions include some fifty operas, twenty three oratorios, a large number of ecumenical pieces, and sixteen organ concerti. Among the most popular of these works are the "The Cuckoo and the Nightingale", in which birds can are heard calling during passages played in different keys representing the vocal ranges of two birds; The Opus 3 and 6 Concerti Grossi; the Water Music; and the Fireworks Music.
After his death, Handel‘s Italian operas fell into obscurity, save for selections such as the ubiquitous aria from Serse, "Ombra mai fu"; his reputation throughout the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, particularly in the anglophone countries, rested primarily on his English oratorios, which were customarily performed by enormous choruses of amateur singers on solemn occasions. These include Esther (1718); Athalia (1733); Saul (1739); Israel in Egypt (1739); Messiah (1742); Samson (1743); Judas Maccabaeus (1747); Solomon (1748); and Jephtha (1752).
Since the 1960s, with the revival of interest in baroque music, original instrument playing styles, and the prevalence of countertenors who could more accurately replicate castrato roles, interest has revived in Handel‘s Italian operas, and many have been recorded and performed onstage. Of the fifty he wrote between 1705 and 1738, Agrippina (1709), Rinaldo (1711, 1731), Orlando (1733), Alcina (1735), Ariodante (1735), and Serse (1738, also known as Xerxes) stand out and are now performed regularly in opera houses and concert halls. Arguably the finest, however, are Giulio Cesare (1724) and Rodelinda (1725), which, thanks to their superb orchestral and vocal writing, have entered the mainstream opera repertoire.
Also revived in recent years are a number of secular cantatas and what one might call secular oratorios or concert operas. Of the former, Ode for St. Cecilia‘s Day (1739) (set to texts of John Dryden) and Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne (1713) are particularly noteworthy. For his secular oratorios, Handel turned to classical mythology for subjects, producing such works as Acis and Galatea (1719), Hercules (1745), and Semele (1744). In terms of musical style, particularly in the vocal writing for the English-language texts, these works have close kinship with the above-mentioned sacred oratorios, but they also share something of the lyrical and dramatic qualities of Handel‘s Italian operas. As such, they are sometimes performed onstage by small chamber ensembles. With the rediscovery of his theatrical works, Handel, in addition to his renown as instrumentalist, orchestral writer, and melodist, is now perceived as being one of opera‘s great musical dramatists.
Handel adopted the spelling "George Frideric Handel" on his naturalization as a British subject. His name is spelled "Handel" in Germany and elsewhere, and "Haendel" in France, which causes no small grief to cataloguers everywhere. There was another composer with a similar name, Handl, who was a Slovene and is more commonly known as Jacobus Gallus.
Handel‘s works were edited by S. Arnold (40 vols., London, 1786), and by Friedrich Chrysander, for the German Handel-Gesellschaft (100 vols., Leipzig, 1859–1894).
Handel lived at 25 Brook Street, London from 1723 until his death in 1759, now commemorated by a blue plaque on the outside of the building. It was here that he composed Messiah, Zadok the Priest, and Fireworks Music. In 2000, the upper stories of 25 Brook Street were leased to the Handel House Trust, and, after an extensive restoration program, the Handel House Museum opened to the public on 8 November 2001. Next door at 23 Brook Street is another blue plaque for a more modern musician, Jimi Hendrix.
Messiah was first performed in New Musick Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin on 13 April, 1742, with 26 boys and five men from the combined choirs of St Patrick‘s and Christ Church cathedrals participating.
This article includes content derived from the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1914, which is in the public domain.