"Handel is the greatest composer who ever lived. I would bare my head and kneel at his grave."
- Ludwig van Beethoven
George Frideric Handel was a German composer in the Baroque era. Though he lived and studied for most of his early life in Germany, he also lived in England and is buried in Westminster Abbey. King George II was among his English patrons and the commission of several works for the English royal family characterized his success there. Other composers from the 18th and 19th centuries (including Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn) credit him with having influenced their compositional styles. Johann Sebastian Bach regarded him as a worthy contemporary.
Handel is best known for various oratorios including Messiah and Judas Maccabaeus as well as for instrumental works including "Water Music" and "Music for the Royal Fireworks". His music is still prevalently used in the 20th and 21st centuries and he is often cited, along with J.S. Bach, as one of the most influential composers of the Baroque period and, more generally, in all of classical music.
Georg Frederich Händel
was born on February 23, 1685, in Saxony
. His parents, Georg and Dorothea Händel, had married two years prior; Georg the younger was their first child. Though his father (who had served as the “barber-surgeon” to Johann Adolf I
, Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels) would die in 1697, when he was 12, he had a strong influence on him. Georg Friederich developed an interest in music at the age of seven, at which point he was playing the organ
. Various sources indicate that he was composing simplistic pieces by the age of nine, though some argue that he was doing this while as young as eight. Despite his keen interest for and talent in music, however, he entered law studies at his father’s request. Georg, though supportive of his son’s musical endeavours on a recreational level, did not believe that it would make a practical career. It was his father who brought him to the courts of various German aristocrat
s on a semi-regular basis and had him formally trained after the encouragement of a Duke. His health was failing by the 1690s, however, and the family was unable to send him to other areas for more intense training.
Händel was 17 when he entered the University of Halle’s law school, but he didn’t stay for very long. He switched his attention to musical studies shortly thereafter and became a musician at a local Calvinist church. Sources don’t seem to agree on exactly what he did there (several say he was a violinist while others insist he was an organist) but what is known is that he eventually became a musician with an opera orchestra. He was offered the organist position at a prominent German cathedral in 1703 but turned it down after learning that he would have to marry his predecessor’s daughter in order to do so. (Interestingly, two other musicians/composers turned down the job for the same reason – one of them was J.S. Bach).
During his early life, Händel met and became acquainted with various other musicians and composers from the Hamburg
area. One of these was Johann Mattheson
; the two quickly became good friends – that is, until a staged production of Mattheson’s opera, “Cleopatra
.” Mattheson reportedly wanted to provide the accompaniment himself but Händel refused to let him near the harpsichord (literally). This somehow broke into a swordfight
; Mattheson, apparently, seriously attempted to kill Händel (who was saved when a button deflected the sword from the general area of his heart. Ouch). They made up less than a month later. What’s a bitter feud about musical accompaniment and a near-death experience between friends?
Händel served as a violinist and harpsichordist with the Hamburg Opera Company’s orchestra until 1706, by which point he had written and staged two operas: Almira and Nero. He moved to Italy later that year, and wrote over 100 cantatas in his four years there. He also composed a number of religious and sacred pieces, including “Dixit Dominus” and “Nisi Dominus.” He also composed a series of operas, including La Lucrezia. By this point, his music was being heard in other European centers including England; he was invited to visit London in 1709 but didn’t actually get there until 1710. Until this point, various members of the Italian aristocracy employed him as a house musician and composer. His main functions were to compose short pieces for social events and meetings.
1710 marked Händel’s first visit to London; he subsequently became the choirmaster for the Elector of Hanover, who would be proclaimed George I after Queen Anne’s death. He would return to London in 1712 and would stay there permanently, anglicizing his name from Georg Friederich Händel to George Frideric Handel. Various sources have noted that Handel’s English (which he learned between his first visit to England and his permanent settling there) was fair, though he retained his accent for the rest of his life. He completed various choral and instrumental works, including Il Pastor Fido and Teseo during this period, and was given a pension of ₤200 per year by Queen Anne in 1713. Handel continued his work for the British royal family after Queen Anne’s death and, perhaps, even became more proficient in his work for the House of Hanover than he had been for the Stuarts.
Handel and the House of Hanover
Handel’s work as a royal composer continued after Queen Anne’s death; he was asked to compose a piece for the arrival of the newly proclaimed George I. This was, of course, in no small part because of his past work relationship with the new King (Handel, as you may recall, served as his choirmaster after arriving in London). During this period, he completed his opera Scipio. The Grenadier Guards of Great Britain used one of its marches as their own after it first premiered, and continue to do so to this day. Handel turned his attention from opera to other forms of music in the years between 1715 and 1720. The Jacobite Rebellion, a movement that sought to restore the House of Stuart to the monarchy, sent England into enough chaos that operas were not performed until 1720. During this period, he composed his famous “Water Music” and several of his most well known religious works. He also undertook work with various members of the English aristocracy while continuing his work for the King.
His reputation for musical excellence (as well as his reputation for being somewhat difficult) grew after he and two of his fellow composers-in-residence disputed which of them was the most talented. The story goes that they were challenged to each write one act of an opera and that Royal Academy of Music directors deemed Handel’s the best. He was also reputed to be intolerant of ‘dissent’; when a soloist refused to sing her aria from one of his operas, he allegedly threatened to toss her out the window. Handel was made an official court composer in 1723 and he composed a number of operas (including Giulio Cesare) that year.
Following George I’s death in 1727, Handel composed four pieces for the coronation of King George II. He chose various texts from the King James Bible that were used in the traditional coronation ceremony and set them to music; these pieces were scored for orchestra and a four-part choir. While they were based on the traditional British coronation service and were composed specifically for George II’s coronation, one of Handel’s anthems has achieved a sense of longevity in that it has been sung at every coronation since that of George II. “Zadok the Priest,” the piece that describes the anointing of King Solomon by the title figure and Nathan, the prophet, is used during the anointing ceremony in all British coronations. It has retained its importance not only because of its parallels between Biblical coronations and anointing rites and those performed by the British monarchy, but also because it reinforces the idea of the monarch having been chosen and blessed by God.
Handel was frequently asked to compose court music for balls and other similar events during this period, and he also composed several operas at the same time. Some of his previous works, including Giulio Cesare, enjoyed revivals and his status increased. His operas were generally successful in England until around 1735, when he began to increase his oratorio and cantata output. This is not to say that he did not compose operas after this point; they were just not as successful as his previous endeavours. He experienced a minor setback in 1737 when he suffered from temporary rheumatism and was unable to use his right arm for a few weeks. This all but eliminated his ability to perform and compose temporarily and, though he did recover through the use of various treatments, his output was temporarily not as prolific as it had been in the past. The death of Queen Caroline, George II’s wife, prompted Handel to compose a funeral anthem. He also worked on sacred oratorios and theatre pieces, including Saul, during the mid-to-late 1730s.
The majority of Handel’s works composed in the late 1730s and 1740s were concertos and other concert pieces (though many were written for weddings). Many of these works were written expressly for the organ
. An acquaintance suggested that his next major undertaking be derived from a series of Biblical text he had chosen for him, dealing with the life of the Messiah
. Handel was originally unreceptive to this idea but was eventually convinced to compose it for Passion Week
. He completed drafts of the first two (of three) parts in roughly two weeks and finished the third part’s draft days later. He had completed his final version 24 days after beginning and would later tell friends and acquaintances that he believed he might have been divinely inspired while composing the Hallelujah Chorus
, the piece that concludes the second part. Though he began work on another sacred oratorio (Saul
) shortly thereafter, plans were quickly made to perform Messiah
during his stay in Dublin
. Though it is today considered to be one of the most popular and well known oratorios of all time, it was initially met with a great deal of criticism. The colleague who suggested it to Handel reportedly told someone else that he would be sure not to give him any other ideas for sacred works – “so that they might not be abused.” Other critics panned his choice of choristers for his initial performances, and some even suggested that the rheumatism he suffered years before had “gone to his head.”
After some revision, Messiah was given a considerably more favourable reaction. It was officially revived in 1745; various stories have surfaced regarding royal reaction to it and the origins of the custom of standing during the Hallelujah Chorus. Most theories involve George II in some way, though whether or not he rose voluntarily during the piece is disputed. Some have suggested that he fell asleep during the performance and the considerably more boisterous chorus not only woke him but also forced him to his feet. Others have suggested that he arrived extremely late for the performance and the rest of the audience rose out of respect as he entered during the Hallelujah Chorus. This is greatly disputed, however, as a country’s reigning monarch (and patron of Handel such as George II was) would probably not have arrived at the very end of the second part of a three-part oratorio. There was no official record of an audience rising during the Hallelujah Chorus until 1750. Most historians and musicologists stick with the idea that George II stood because he was stirred by the music and its message. Let’s face it – it’s probably the nicest explanation.
Modern analyses of Messiah have depicted it as a masterpiece but it is important to note that there are several different versions of the oratorio. Many of these were likely arranged during Handel’s time; they are therefore referred to as ‘authentic.’ Musicologists have indicated that any variation on the oratorio likely places emphasis on various musical parts as opposed to others and that Handel’s orchestration and arrangement is still glaringly obvious in any arrangement or version that exists; that is to say that the instrumentation is essentially the same in most arrangements but dynamics and other interpretive elements have been altered in order to emphasize certain instrumental or vocal parts. Mozart's arrangement, for instance, added wind parts (partially out of necessity, as he was unable to use organs during his performances of the oratorio)1.
Few would argue that this is one of the most easily recognizable and best-loved oratorios ever written, though my best friend had to sing it as part of a university choral music course and, after countless sixteenth-note runs, declared Handel “the biggest masochist in the history of music.”
Later Life and Career
Though he suffered from health problems
later in his life, Handel remained a reasonably prolific composer. His final ten years were marked by the composition of “Music for the Royal Fireworks
” and various other oratorios (including some of a somewhat more secular nature). Initial performances of “Royal Fireworks” were somewhat disastrous; records indicate that fireworks caused various parts of the ‘set’ (specifically the pavilion) to catch fire and burn to the ground
. The piece’s orchestration was also somewhat troubling, as Handel originally intended to include violin
s, yet the King had specifically asked for such stringed instruments to be omitted. They eventually reached a compromise, and “Music for the Royal Fireworks” is now considered to be one of Handel’s most well known pieces.
By the 1750s, Handel was approaching his 70s and though he continued to compose, his output decreased due to age and illness. He nonetheless managed to complete several concertos and began work on longer compositions. He began to experience eye trouble in 1751 and was forced to go on a temporary hiatus from composing due to lapses in his sight. Though he did complete his final oratorios during this period, he was forced to accept the help of an apprentice. He retired from public performance in 1753 but was able to enjoy various revivals of his most famous and popular works, including Messiah, during this period. These were often staged as ‘benefit concerts’ for charities such as hospitals. By this point he had undergone various procedures to help regain his sight, but they were not entirely successful. He was reportedly completely blind by the time of his retirement from public performance, though he did perform one or two pieces at a charity performance of Messiah later that year. The next few years were filled with revivals of his most successful and enduring works, and he completed his final compositions in 1757.
Handel became increasingly ill between 1757 and 1759, though his work flourished through revivals during this period. He was reportedly very much aware of his own mortality, and was rumoured to have been composing his own funeral march in the early 1750s. He died on April 14th, 1759, at his home in London at the age of 74; he had attended a performance of Messiah just over a week earlier. George Frideric Handel was buried in Westminster Abbey as per his own request. A monument was erected to him there – he’d requested that too, and had even set money aside in his will to help pay for it.
It is widely written that, after his death, several of the works of George Frideric Handel were largely forgotten. While his monumental compositions (such as Messiah
) continued to be reasonably popular, the evolution of the Classical Era
(and the composers it produced, such as Mozart) pushed many of his operas (specifically those written in Italian
) out of the public’s interest. While his English and German choral pieces
are perhaps his most famous, Italian operas such as Giulio Cesare
became popular in the 20th century. His apprentices released some of his unpublished works posthumously.
There is rarely ever a “definitive” version of some of Handel’s most famous works; composers and arrangers, for instance, have arranged and re-interpreted Messiah, over the centuries. Among these were Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose arrangement of the oratorio is performed frequently in modern times, and Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach, who conducted it publicly after Handel’s death.
Though he died nine years before Handel did (and his death is often considered to mark the end of the Baroque era), J.S. Bach was purportedly impressed with his talents during his lifetime. Bach supposedly once remarked that 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." This has been cited on numerous music history and orchestra websites (including most of those cited below), yet it has never technically been traced anywhere. It is possible that the message may have been relayed to Handel by CPE Bach, who met him and invited him to visit his father.
Though they did come from somewhat different backgrounds, many parallels have also been drawn between their lives. Handel and Bach were born in the same year in Germany and shared similar employment backgrounds (both having worked as choirmasters and court composers for royals and aristocrats). Much has also been made of the fact that they both experienced eye trouble late in life, but this is most likely a coincidence and may stem from the fact that, as composers in the 18th century, they were often focusing on written material in low light conditions. tdent also notes that the same doctor operated on their eyes; Bach died shortly after one such operation.
G.F. Handel in the 21st Century
The work of George Frederic Handel has been performed frequently throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. It was in the mid-20th century that his operas, which had not been staged since the 1750s, were revived. Messiah
is also extremely popular, particularly around the Christmas
season (even though Handel himself intended it for Easter
-listening). Several of his other well-known pieces are taken from larger compositions; “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba
,” for instance, is a popular musical selection for weddings. It was not composed on its own but rather as part of Solomon
. Giulio Cesare
is perhaps his most well known opera and opera companies worldwide perform it regularly.
Pieces that were written specifically for the British royal family’s events and excursions (such as “Water Music” and “Music for the Royal Fireworks”) are also commonly used in the present day. They are frequently performed by orchestras and symphonies and are sometimes used as processional music for weddings and graduations. Though Handel’s music has been described as being “typically Baroque” (that is, making use of Baroque techniques such as basso continuo), the Baroque “revival” of the 20th and 21st centuries have led to renewed interest in his compositions and his life. His music has become increasingly popular now that the Internet has made the spread and sharing of music simpler; since the copyright on most of his compositions have expired (and few have been renewed), many of his works are also freely available for legal download online. Many advocacy groups devoted to Handel and his music also exist, and many musical organizations continue to stage events and festivals during which enthusiasts and admirers come together to discuss and enjoy Handel's music.
Handel’s surname, as mentioned, was originally spelt ‘Händel’ but he anglicized it upon moving to London
. It has also been spelt differently in various languages and dialects, though his works are often catalogue
d under various different spellings.
G.F. Handel Chronology – His Life, Works and Times. http://gfhandel.org/chron.htm
Handelian Anecdotes. http://gfhandel.org/anecdotes.htm
George Frideric Handel. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handel
George Frideric Handel. w3.rz-berlin.mpg.de/cmp/handel.html
Handel, Georg Friederich: Biography http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~tas3/handel.html
1 . "Mozart's Arrangement of Messiah." The Choral Journal v31 n9 (April 1991), p. 19-24.