George Frideric Handel - Biography


George Frideric Handel was born on February 23rd 1685 in Halle Germany then a small town in Prussia and died on April 14th 1759 in London. His father was a barber surgeon to the Prince of Saxe-Magdeburg his mother Dorothea nee Trost. Similar to Bach who was born weeks after Handel he developed his musical talent at a very early age and took instruction on the harpsichord and organ by the time he was seven. Handel received further instruction Wilhelm Zachau the organist of large Halle church. Unlike Bach who came from a distinguished musical family Handel’s father being a solid middle class burgher wanted Handel to pursue a legal career. Handel entered the Halle University at the age of seventeen but left his legal studies upon the death of his father in 1703 to become a professional musician. The following year he moved to Hamburg to become a violinist and harpsichordist in the opera orchestra. The company was run by a famed opera composer Richard Keiser. During this time Handel’s fiery temper showed itself professionally for the first but not the last time when he got into a dispute with the composer Mattheson over the direction of his opera which escalated to a duel which was fortunately stopped when Mattheson’s sword broke on one of Handel’s metal shirt buttons. By the age of twenty he composed his first of what would be over forty operas Almira and Nero whose scores are lost.


Handel in 1706 took residence in Italy on the invitation of the famed de’Medici family. Opera being banned in Italy at the time by papal decree Handel wrote sacred music though in a florid operatic style that got around the ban. His first well known piece comes from this period Dixit Dominus of 1707.Once he left the papal provinces of Rome for Northern Italy he was able to write operas starting with Roderigo and Agrippina which were successes. In 1710 Handel left Italy to become Kapellmeister to George the Elector of Hanover who a few years later was to become George the First ,King of England and found the dynasty that rules Britain to this day. Handel in 1711 left for England to stage his opera Rinaldo the success of which made him decide to move to England where he was to remain for the rest of his life. He produced the operas Tesio and Il Pastor Fido and composed an Ode to Queen Anne and the Utrecht Te Deum which so pleased the Queen that she gave yearly annuity. In 1714 the Queen dies and his old employer in Hanover as we mentioned becomes King of England. Evidently King George didn’t hold a grudge against Handel and he remained in royal favor. Possibly to gain the King’s favor in 1717 he composed one of his most famous works, Water Music which was written for a royal barge outing on the Thames by the King. In 1717 he also became the resident composer for the Duke of Chandos for whom he write his eleven Chandos Anthems and the oratorio Esther. He also served as musical tutor to the daughter of the Prince of Wales for whose lessons he wrote his Harpsichord Suites that include the well known Harmonious Blacksmith.


In 1720 he was involved in starting what be the first of many opera companies at the Kings Theatre London where he put on his latest opera Radamisto. He soon was to get into a rivalry with an Italian composer named Bononcini. Bononcini was soon accused of being a plagiarist when he copied some choral pieces from a composer named Lotti and passed them off as his which eventually left London in disgrace. Handel himself was himself a great self borrower and re used tunes often throughout his career. In the 1720’s he wrote an astonishing number of operas for the Kings Theatre including Floridante,Flavio, Rodelinda, Admeto,Scipone and most famously Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar).In 1727 he wrote four monumental Coronation Anthems for the coronation of George the Second the most famous of which Zadok The Priest has been used at every British coronation since. In 1729 after dissolving his old opera company a year earlier Handel opened a new King’s theatre under the auspices of the Royal Academy of Music. The new series of operas he was to put out in the next few years were to include Partenope, Sosarme, Ezio, Poro and Orlando. This series with the exception of Orlando didn’t prove to be as successful as the previous batch.


In 1732 he presented revised versions of the oratorio Esther and Acis and Galatea and a new oratorio Deborah and the next year Athalia. He had difficulties with his opera company during these years particular with his star singer the castrato Senisino who was poached by a rival opera company. Handel in general had a very autocratic way of dealing with his artists he once reportedly threatened to throw a soprano out the window for refusing to sing her role as written. Handel opened up another company in 1734 and presented another series of operas that included Ariodante, Alcina, Arminio, Atalanta, Giustino and Bernice and Serse which includes the famed aria Ombra Mai Fu. This incredible output plus the administrative stresses along with his fiery temper caused some sort of physical collapse in 1737 when he was fifty two that left him with temporary paralysis of his right arm along with problems with his eye sight. The medical treatment in those days for this sort of collapse was to go to a water spa in France to take the cure, evidently it worked, his health recovered. During this period the last of his opera companies went under. His last opera Deidamia was composed in 1740.


Handel was to turn to the Oratorio as his main compositional rout for the balance of his career. The oratorio is setting of usually sacred texts based often on the dramatic stories of the Old Testament. These have choruses that represent the people and arias that express the words of the biblical characters. Handel though a secular man was deeply religious as were his British public. We should not neglect to mention that during the decades from 1720 to 1740 Handel produced a vast amount of chamber music for many different instruments twelve Organ Concertos a Harp Concerto and his famed sets of Concerti Grossi opus 3 and 6 for orchestra. The first oratorios from this period were Saul and Israel in Egypt (surrounding the events of the Israelites escape from Egypt) and the well known Ode to Saint Ceclia. Towards the end of 1741 the most dramatic episode of Handel’s life occurs. Handel during a trip to Ireland felt that he was divinely inspired to produce his only Oratorio based on the New Testament his most famous work The Messiah. He completed the first part dealing with Christ’s birth in six days, the second part that deals with his death and resurrection in nine and the third that gives thanks to god for Christ in six and the stark orchestration took a week longer. Miraculously Handel composed the entire two and a half hour work one of the supreme masterpieces of music within a month’s time. The first performance benefited a foundling home and took place in Dublin in April of 1742. According to legend during the London premiere King George the Second stood up during the Halleluiah Chorus beginning a tradition that lasted well into the twentieth century. Though anything after the Messiah would seem anti climactic Handel produced a steady stream of great works during the 1740’s; the oratorios Samson, Hercules, Belshazzar, Solomon, Susanna and Judas Maccabeus being the best known. He round off the decade with a famed piece Royal Fireworks Music which was background for a fireworks display in London Park to honor the King and must have used every oboist, trumpeter and horn player in London


Handel journeying back from Germany in 1750 was seriously injured in a stage coach accident the after effects of this along with the gradual loss of his sight slowed him down considerably. Handel was to produce a few more masterpieces the oratorios Jeptha and Theodora .An operation to remove cataracts in both eyes performed by the same oculist who attempted to restore Bach’s eyesight the previous year failed and Handel slipped to into blindness. Though he virtually stopped composing the last seven years of his life he continued with the help of his musical assistant John Christopher Smith lead performances of his works. An apocryphal story tells of the blind Handel conducting Samson which has an aria for the blinded Samson Total Eclipse that moved the audience to tears. Handel died April 14TH 1759. He was buried with state honors and placed in a crypt at Westminster Abbey after three thousand people attended his funeral.


One of the great coincidences of music history is that two of the supreme geniuses of music Bach and Handel were born within a month of each other and less than a hundred miles apart. Too many of the undiscerning the stout sever looking be wigged gentlemen seem to be musically coupled together. They were very different artists, Handel a very worldly celebrity whose operas and oratorios made him a celebrity throughout Europe during his life time contrasted with Bach the artisan who composed for Lutheran churches and musical societies in provincial Saxony. Bach attempted to meet Handel twice when latter was visiting his home town of Halle but they never met. Handel’s fame though always great manifested itself in different phases during the 250 years since his death. In Georgian and Victorian England and later Episicopel America he was viewed as the supreme exponent of the Anglo Saxon destiny to fulfill God’s will on earth, the hero’s of the oratorios represented the English people rather than biblical Hebrews .Well into the twentieth century massive choral festivals of the oratorios were held that had choruses in thousands and were re orchestrated to sound more like Elgar then Handel. But the forty or more operas were except for a few more arias were buried like some lost continent.


During the fifties as with Bach there was a total re assessment of Handel due to the early music movement and the works being available on record. Starting in Germany there was an astonishing revival of Handel’s operas. We know have singers who have the technique and scholarship to sing the music properly for the first time in centuries. Leading opera houses in the world perform Handel’s operas to great success. His instrumental and orchestral music has also benefited greatly from historically accurate performances of his music. Not for the first time recordings have been in the vanguard of assessing the true worth of a great composer

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