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1685 1759

George Frideric Handel

Handel, George Frideric
  • 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

Born: Feb. 23, 1685 in Halle, Saxony (Germany)
Died: Apr. 14, 1759 in London
Nationality: German
Genre: Baroque
Performed as: Harpsichordist, organist, and violinist
During the composer's 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

  • Winton Dean, The New Grove Handel (Norton, 1980) 
  • J. Mainwaring, Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel (London, 1760)
  • Anthony Hicks, “Handel, George Frideric” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2001)
  • David W. Barber, “Handel” in Bach, Beethoven, and the Boys (Sound and Vision, 1986)

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

Messiah look inside Messiah (An Oratorio). By George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Edited by T. Tertius Noble. For SATB choir (with solos) and piano accompaniment (SATB). Choral. Baroque. Difficulty: medium to medium-difficult. Vocal score. Choral notation, piano reduction, introductory text and performance notes. Composed 1741. 252 pages. G. Schirmer #ED38. Published by G. Schirmer (HL.50323760)

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45 ARIAS from Operas and Oratorios for Voice and Piano (High Voice) look inside 45 ARIAS from Operas and Oratorios for Voice and Piano (High Voice) (Volume I). By George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Edited by Sergius Kagen. For high voice solo and piano accompaniment. Baroque. Difficulty: difficult. Collection. Vocal melody, piano accompaniment, lyrics, translations and introductory text. 61 pages. Published by International Music Company (IM.1693)

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