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CHAPTER 38. Music in London: George Frideric Handel. George Frideric Handel.

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Chapter 38

Music in London:

George Frideric Handel

George frideric handel
George Frideric Handel

Born in Halle, Germany, at eighteen Handel moved to Hamburg where he played violin and harpsichord in the opera orchestra. There, and later during a four-year sojourn in Italy, he absorbed the musical style and theatrical conventions of Italian opera. Finally, he moved to London, where he composed Italian operas, oratorios, ceremonial music for the royal family, and much instrumental music.

Music in london george frideric handel

  • Recall that a dance suite is a collection of dances, almost invariably in binary form (AB), all in a single key for a solo instrument or a full orchestra. Handel wrote two suites for orchestra, Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks, and two collections of eight suites for harpsichord.

  • Water Music: Handel's set of three dance suites featuring the horn, the trumpet, and the flute (in F major, D major, and G major and minor, respectively). It was first performed in 1717 by fifty musicians situated on a barge floating on the Thames River. Next to the orchestra was the boat carrying King George I, who had commissioned the work in an effort to improve his standing with his subjects.

Music in london george frideric handel

  • French Horn: in the early eighteenth century, a natural instrument (without valves) with a smaller bell, and thus a smaller sound, than the modern horn.

  • Horn fifths: a characteristic figure in which two horns slide back and forth through sixths, fifths, and thirds, with occasional ornamentation.

Music in london george frideric handel

  • Royal Academy of Music: a publicly-held stock company whose main investor was the king for the production of Italian opera—specifically, opera seria.

  • Opera seria: literally, "serious opera," a fully sung Italian opera based on historical or mythological sources featuring high and noble characters such as royalty, heroes, and gods. A singers' opera, opera seria required highly paid virtuoso singers. In London, it was Handel's job to recruit such virtuosi (all Italian) from opera houses around Europe.


At Handel's time, castrati were among the most demanded and well-paid musicians in Europe. In fact, they sang the most important male roles on the Baroque stage. (Recall that a castrato was a male singer whose larynx and vocal chords had remained small as a result of castration, usually performed between the age of eight and ten.) Among the most famous castrati was Francesco Bernardi, called Senesino, who sang the role of Caesar in Handel's Giulio Cesare.

Handel and oratorio
Handel and Oratorio

  • After the failure of the Royal Academy of Music, Handel increasingly turned his attention to the oratorio. A large-scale, multi-movement composition setting a sacred text, oratorio provided extra-liturgical enlightenment for a public that grew gradually more critical of Italian opera.

  • Unlike Italian opera, oratorio appealed to the growingly devout English middle-class as

    • it was sung in the local language rather than Italian;

    • it did not involve elaborate staging, costumes, or acting;

    • it did not require expensive and often irascible castrati or prima donnas (and, consequently, the extravagant vocal writing typical of opera);

    • it featured the chorus much more prominently, which offered an opportunity to draw on the English choral tradition.

Messiah 1741
Messiah (1741)

  • Handel's most popular oratorio, composed in only three-and-a-half weeks in the summer of 1741. Drawing on the Old and New Testaments, Messiah tells the story of Christ in three parts:

    1. Prophecy and birth of Christ;

    2. crucifixion, descent into Hell, and resurrection;

    3. the Day of Judgment and the promise of eternal life.

Music in london george frideric handel

Pastoral aria: a slow aria that evokes the fictional and rustic landscape and characters of the pastoral through distinctive musical characteristics such as

  • parallel thirds moving mostly in step-wise motion;

  • a lilting rhythm in compound meter;

  • a slow harmonic rhythm with many subdominant chords.