(1685-1759) George Frederic Handel After hearing a performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” Lord Kinnoull congratulated the composer on the “noble entertainment which he had given the town.” Handel replied, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them, I wish to make them better.”
Handel & Bach • Handel and Bach were born in the same year, 1685 in the same country, Germany. • Handel was born in Halle Germany, an industrial city about a day’s journey from Eisenach, where Bach was born. • Though they both became famous composers, Bach and Handel never met in their lifetime. • Handel never married or had kids.
Childhood • Handel was the son of a barber-surgeon who worked for nobles. He thought that playing music showed weakness of character and was not a respectable profession. • Handel enjoyed music from a young age, but his father forbade him to play instruments and expected him to study to be a lawyer. • Handel was a stubborn boy. He smuggled a clavichord into the attic and covered the strings with a cloth so he could practice at night.
Childhood • One day Handel went with his father to visit a duke. He found his way to the church and began playing the organ. • The Duke was so amazed by the boy’s playing that he convinced Handel’s father to let him begin taking lessons. • Handel’s father reluctantly agreed, as long as he kept studying for a career as a lawyer.
Opera in Hamburg • At 18, Handel gave up law and moved to Hamburg, Germany to play harpsichord for the opera. He also composed two operas there. • One night his friend, the composer and singer Mattheson performed on stage until his character died, and then wanted to take over the harpsichord in the orchestra. Handel refused to give it up, so they had a duel later. Mattheson stabbed at Handel, but fortunately his sword hit Handel’s coat button. They both survived unscathed and made up within a month later.
Move to Italy • At the invitation of a prince, Handel moved down to Italy. (Florence, Venice, Rome.) • Handel learned how to write operas, cantatas, oratorios, concertos and sonatas from meeting and listening to the greatest composers of the time there. • His church music, operas, and instrumental pieces were very successful.
Prince George of Hanover • In 1710, Handel became choirmaster for Prince George in Hanover, Germany. But Handel continued to travel frequently and decided to settle in London, England. • In 1714 his neglected employer became King George I of England and it was said he was not happy about Handel’s abandonment of his court. • Handel wrote a suite of dances for the King’s boat party called “Water Music.” The King loved the music and forgave Handel.
Music for the King • Handel was frequently asked to compose things for royal events. • He composed the anthem “Zadok the Priest” for the coronation of George II, which is still used today when a monarch is crowned in England. • Later, he composed “Music for the Royal Fireworks” as part of a celebration of a new treaty with France.
Italian Opera in London • Handel opened one opera company after another, writing Italian operas and engaging the most famous singers of the time to come perform for the English audiences. • Handel had no patience for diva singers. It’s said when one singer refused to sing her aria as he wrote it, Handel threatened to throw her out a window. • Because of his large size and gruff manner, Handel was sometimes called “the great bear.”
Challenges and Failure • At age 52 Handel had a stroke that temporarily paralyzed his right arm and made it so he couldn’t think straight. He couldn’t perform anymore. He became deep in debt. • He continued to produce operas, but people didn’t like them and stopped coming. The Bishop of London called operas immoral and tried to ban them. • When the pope had banned opera in Rome earlier, Handel had responded by writing oratorios instead. He did the same thing in London, turning out 22 oratorios over the next 20 years.
Handel’s Oratorios • An oratorio is a cross between an opera and a cantata. • It includes overtures, recitatives, arias, and choruses like an opera, but no sets, costumes or props. • It is based on a story from the Bible, but is performed in a theater instead of a church. • It is usually 2+ hours long like an opera.
Handel’s “Messiah” • Handel’s most famous oratorio is his “Messiah.” Written in an incredible 24 days (259 pages), Handel claimed he was inspired in writing it. • Legend says that a servant, tiptoeing into the composer’s room one evening to take away an untouched • supper found the composer in a state of ecstasy. A glorious vision seemed to be hovering before his inner gaze. He was quoted as saying that when he wrote the “Hallelujah” Chorus, “I did think I saw all heaven before me, and the Great God Himself.” • He signed it “S.D.G.”
Influence of “Messiah” • Handel often performed “Messiah” as a benefit concert for charities like orphanages and debtors prisons. • Despite the prejudice against Handel and his works, “Messiah” became recognized as an incredibly beautiful and spiritual work. • At a royal command performance, King George rose to his feet during the “Hallelujah” chorus, as if to recognize it as the anthem of the “King of kings,” the Messiah. Everyone else followed and standing for that song is a tradition still followed today. • Today, Handel’s “Messiah” is the most popular choral work in English and is frequently performed for Christmas and Easter.
Legacy • Handel died in 1759 at age 74. • Thousands of people attended his funeral in Westminster Abbey where he was buried along side monarchs and famous Englishmen like Shakespeare and Dickens. • Mozart and Beethoven praised Handel as the master of all composers, but his music went out of style in the 19th century. It has been making a comeback since the 70’s. • The one exception: Handel’s “Messiah” has been performed continuously for 270+ years.