George Frideric Handel

Composer George Frideric Handel

Born in Germany and trained in Italy, Handel immigrated to London and became the most celebrated composer in English history. Originator of the English oratorio, most notably Messiah.

Vital Statistics
Feb. 23, 1685 in Halle, Saxony (Germany)
Apr. 14, 1759 in London
Performed As:
Harpsichordist, organist, and violinist
During Lifetime:
War of the Austrian Succession; the Seven Years’ war raged; Italian opera rises and falls on the London stage, as new standards of realism make London famous for its theater scene.
Biographical Outline
  • Training: The Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels, hears the nine-year old Handel play organ and convinces the composer’s father to allow the boy to continue in music. Later, Handel studies with Giovanni Bononcini, one of the most successful opera composers of his generation.
  • First gig, 1703-4: Handel moves to Hamburg to play violin in the opera orchestra. The next year, the director of the Hamburg Opera skips town, and the interim manager gives Handel his first opera commission, Almira. It was a success.
  • The grand tour, 1706-1709: On an extensive tour of Italy he forms close associations with powerful men in Italian culture: the Medicis, and the famous Cardinals Ottoboni, Pamphili, Colonna, and Ruspoli. Under their patronage, Handel composes hundreds of cantatas. The Venetian production of Agrippina secures Handel an international reputation.
  • Chapel master, 1710: Handel becomes Kapellmeister for George, Elector of Hanover. His salary is huge: 1,000 thaler annually, compared with that of J.S. Bach that same year: 175 thaler annually!
  • New horizons, 1711: Handel spends much  time in London, where he makes a big splash, composing  the first Italian opera specifically written for London, Rinaldo.  This feat lays the foundation for his future career.
  • One step back, 1713: Handel is fired from his post in Hanover, but there were no hard feelings. When George of Hanover becomes King George I of England in 1714, Handel receives his back salary, and resumes his role as the King’s favored composer, moving to England for good. He officially anglicizes his name (Georg Friedrich to George Frideric), and later becomes a naturalized British citizen.
  • Water Music, 1717: Handel composes one of his most famous orchestral compositions, the Water Music, for a royal barge trip down the Thames. Legend states that the music delighted the King so much that he asked for it to be played three times.
  • Social climber, 1717: Handel entered the service of the Duke of Chandos, composing an early version of Esther, the first oratorio ever written in English.
  • Opera and drama, 1719-1728: The Royal Academy of Music is established for the promotion of opera in London. Handel travels Europe to recruit singers, and manages to hire two top-ranked castrati, as well as two famous Italian sopranos. All goes well, until their demands start breaking the bank. The Academy is kept afloat by royal intercession, but people grumble about wasting taxpayer dollars on frivolous enterprises. John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (1728) famously lampoons these problems and becomes one of the most celebrated English stage works in history. 
  • A new direction, 1738-1759: Challenged on the stage by a rival opera company in 1736, Handel   begins to present oratorios – musically similar to operas, but with religious texts and no staged action – and in 1741 he gives up opera altogether. In this period, Handel produces some of the most beloved oratorios in the entire repertory: Saul and Israel in Egypt (both 1739), and  Messiah (1742). The London performances of Messiah, while causing some scandal, help establish Handel  as the most celebrated composer in English history.
Fun Facts
  • Birthdays: Handel was born in the same year as J.S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti. He could hardly have been more different than these contemporaries. Both were relatively stable figures with geographically limited careers. Handel traveled and had a gift for money-making which the others couldn’t match.
  • Duel: In 1704, Handel and another composer (and friend) Johann Mattheson got into an argument over who had the right to play continuo in the opera pit. A duel ensued, and Mattheson won. Handel’s life was spared only because a button on his coat broke the sword’s near-fatal blow.
  • More scandals: Handel never married, though as a young man, he was rumored to have had an affair with one of the singers in his Italian circles. He must have learned discretion from this encounter for we have no further record of his love life. This ambiguity has led some historians to suggest that Handel may have been gay. 
  • An old joke: Handel was half German, half Italian, and half English. In truth, he was a very large man.
  • Blinded by science: In 1758, Handel’s underwent surgery to remove cataracts, leaving him completely blind for the remaining year of his life. In 1750, a similar operation on J.S. Bach in Leipzig, also left him blind. Complications from the surgery may have led to Bach’s death that year, and the same may be true of Handel.
Recommended Biography
Explore the Music
  • Handel is most famous for his oratorios, Messiah foremost among them, but his major Italian operas are now frequently performed on the world’s stages. He was also an important innovator of the organ concerto and contributed significantly to the main instrumental genres of the Baroque period: trio sonatas, cantatas, concerti grossi, violin and wind sonatas, and solo harpsichord suites.
Recommended Websites
  • Note: Some of Handel’s better-known works are available in performances both on modern instruments and period instruments. In our CD recommendations below, the asterisk indicates modern instrumentation.
  • Oratorios:
    • Messiah (1742)
    • Heather Harper/ Helen Watts/ John Wakefield/ John Shirley-Quirk; London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/ Colin Davis (Philips, 1993)*.
    • Beyond Messiah, there are lots of wonderful others.
    • Israel in Egypt (1739)
    • soloists/ Cambridge King’s College Choir/ Brandenburg Consort/ Stephen Cleobury, cond. (Decca, 2000)
    • Saul (1739)
    • Alastair Miles/ Derek Lee Ragin/ Lynne Dawson/ Donna Brown; Monteverdi Choir/ English Baroque Soloists/ John Eliot Gardiner (Philips, 1991, 2007). Live performance.
    • Semele (1744)  A very operatic oratorio, which opera companies sometimes stage.
    • Rosemary Joshua/ Richard Croft/ Hilary Summers/ Early Opera Company; Christian Curnyn (Chandos, 2008).
    • Jephtha (1759)
    • Michael George/ Catherine Denley/ Axel Kohler/ Berlin Akademie für Alte Musik; Marcus Creed (Brilliant Classics, 2003)
    • Also watch for the rerelease of the recording conducted by John Eliot Gardiner for Philips.
  • Operas:
    • Few composers have matched Handel’s ability to transcend the  formula of 18th-century heroic operas.
    • Rinaldo (1711)
    • David Daniels/ Cecilia Bartoli; Academy of Ancient Music/ Christopher Hogwood, cond. (London, 2000).
    • Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt, 1723)
    • Jennifer Larmore/ Barbara Schlick; Cologne Concerto Orchestra/ Rene Jacobs, cond. (Harmonia Mundi, 1992).
    • Rodelinda (1725)Simone Kermes/ Marijana Mijanovic; Il Complesso Barocco/ Alan Curtis (DG, 2005).
    • Ariodante (1735)
    • Lorraine Hunt Lieberson/ Juliana Gondek/ Jennifer Lane; Freiburg Baroque Orchestra/ Nicholas McGegan (Harmonia Mundi, 1996)
    • We can no longer hear the castrati, for whom Handel wrote some of his greatest music, but some operatic countertenors have made their mark in these important roles. Here’s one of the most famous, in a recital of arias.
    • Handel Operatic Arias, David Daniels, countertenor; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/ Roger Norrington, cond. (Virgin Veritas/EMI, 1998)
  • Instrumental works:
    • Water Music (1717)
    • Le Concert des Nations/ Jordi Savall (SACD, Alia Vox, Spain, 2008). Includes the Royal Fireworks.
    • Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra/ Nicholas McGegan (Harmonia Mundi, 2008)
    • Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749)
    • English Concert/ Trevor Pinnock (Arkiv (DG), 1997). Performed with the originally specified forces: 9 trumpets, 9 horns, 21 oboes, 21 bassoons, snare drums and timpani.
    • Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields/ Sir Neville Marriner. (London, 1990)*  Includes Water Music.
    • Four Coronation Anthems: These were written for the coronation of King George II in 1727, and are all great choral works. Zadok the Priest has been performed at every English coronation since.
    • Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/ Academy of Ancient Music/ Stephen Cleobury (EMI, 2001).
    • Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/ English Chamber Orchestra/ David Willcocks (EMI, 2005).*