George Frideric Handel
(1685-1759)

In the pantheon of classical composers, there is surely a place where George Frideric Handel resides. A composite of European influences, German born Handel spent much of his adult life in London, while his compositions often drew from French and Italian Baroque influences resulting in one of the most highly lauded oeuvres in the annals of classical music. His vast repertoire includes such immortal works as Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks, and perhaps the most famous oratorio of all time, Messiah, the holiday favorite featuring the celebrated “Hallelujah” chorus. Handel’s music influenced fellow giants Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, permeating throughout society and remaining a part of the fabric of modern culture, particularly in Great Britain.

Handel was born in the town of Halle five weeks prior to the birth of fellow German composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Though not raised in a musical family, despite discouragement by his father from making music a serious vocation, he became a virtuoso keyboardist and violinist. Upon his father’s death, Handel discontinued his law school studies and embarked on a series of music related jobs as a church organist and violinist in regional opera houses.

Following early recognition of his first operas, Handel accepted an invitation from the Grand Duke of Tuscany to relocate to Italy where, ironically, opera was banned for a short period of time. Instead, Handel focused on writing sacred music, including Dixit Dominus, as well as sharpening his skills in the Italian style of composition. The opera embargo provided an opportunity to write the first of his many oratorios, Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno.

A return to Germany resulted in a two year appointment as Kapellmeister for George, Elector of Hannover. (An advantageous move, as George would soon become, through a twist of fate, the King of England.) Handel would spend much of his time on leave visiting Britain, before relocating there permanently in 1712. Thanks to patrons such as Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington and James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos, Handel became house composer at Cannons, the palace grounds outside of London owned by the Chandos Family. It was at Cannons where he completed the oratorios Esther (the first English oratorio) and Acis and Galatea. The British setting greatly inspired Handel leading him to write eleven pieces comprising the Chandos Anthems, which owed a great debt to the compositions of Henry Purcell.

Another of Handel’s more lasting pieces includes the three suites comprising Water Music. Commissioned by his former employer, who by this point was now King George I, the music was written for a high society party held on a series of barges as they floated on the Thames. Even the orchestra was set up on barges, but the harpsichord was too heavy and had to be left behind. The resulting music featured a greater number of woodwinds and brass to shore up the instruments, as they tended to disappear in the open air setting. The three suites are an amalgam of influences reflected by Handel’s unique background. Along with his German upbringing and Italian training, he had absorbed enough English culture to create a bold mixture of music to satisfy the king and his entourage. The king, so enthralled with the music, commanded the hour-long piece to be performed in its entirety at least three times during the voyage.

By 1737, a stroke left Handel temporarily paralyzed, losing his sight, and in great financial need. As he recovered, Handel made a conscience decision to focus on oratorios, as opposed to operas. He was provided a libretto by clergyman Charles Jennens based on the birth and Passion of Christ. This coincided with an offer from William Cavendish, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, to contribute some works to the upcoming oratorio season in Dublin. As this performance would be held near the time of Lent, Handel decided to set Jennens’ libretto to music, churning out Messiah in a rapid three week period. Using the Old and New Testaments as lyrical sources, Messiah is divided into three sections: The Birth, The Passion, and The Aftermath, detailing the Prophecy and Resurrection of the Messiah. In the piece, Handel utilizes a unique “text painting” method of composition. (e.g. As a word such as “mountain” appears in the libretto, the melody climbs higher toward the first syllable, only to drop an octave on the second.)

The oratorio’s April 1742 debut in Dublin was a resounding success. Although originally written for Lent, Messiah is now largely associated with the Christmas season, or Advent. The “Hallelujah” chorus, the eternal holiday favorite, is often performed separate from the larger piece. The familiar tradition of standing during the chorus has been attributed to King George II, though his reasons for rising are a subject of debate. While some believe the monarch rose because he found the music so moving, others saw it as a respectful response to the “King of Kings” lyric. However, some have speculated the king was merely trying to relieve the pain brought on by gout. Messiah quickly became Handel’s signature piece of music, and in 1750 he arranged a performance to benefit the Foundling Hospital in London, which became an annual tradition for the duration of Handel’s lifetime.

Much like Water Music, a large ensemble was required for the outdoor premier of Music for the Royal Fireworks. Written in honor of the 1748 signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle ending the War of the Austrian Succession, the debut was held at Green Park in London, though rehearsals at Vauxhall Gardens drew surprisingly larger crowds of over 12,000. The performance itself was literally disastrous. The fireworks, which were not as spectacular as advertised, occasionally misfired and set one of the pavilions ablaze killing three people, including a member of the orchestra.

Later in life, Handel’s health deteriorated even further. He was critically injured in a carriage accident and his vision grew worse, resulting in his working at a slower pace. Fully recovered from his previous financial woes, he was a wealthy man at the time of his death in 1759, and he left the majority of his fortune to a niece and various charities. A lifelong bachelor who never fathered any children, Handel was buried at Westminster Abbey. Though his oratorios have stood the test of time, his operas are little performed today. Universally praised by his contemporaries, Ludwig van Beethoven reportedly remarked that Handel was “the greatest composer that ever lived.” He continued, “I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb”.

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