George Frideric Handel was one of the great composers of the Baroque era. A truly cosmopolitan figure, Handel was born in the town of Halle in Saxony in 1685 but spent most of his life in England. The British truly appreciated his music and his most famous works were written for them.
Handel had music lessons with Zachow, the organist at the Church of Our Lady in Halle. In 1703, after a short spell at Halle Cathedral, Handel moved to Hamburg, the principal centre of German opera, and composed his first opera Almira there. From 1706 to 1710 Handel lived in Italy. These were very important years for Handel as he laid the foundations of his compositional style.
In 1710 Handel returned to Germany to become the Director of Music at the Electoral Court of Hanover. He soon left to visit London for a year where he had another operatic triumph with Rinaldo. Handel returned to Germany but was back in London in 1712, having been granted leave 'for a reasonable time'. However, he was still there two years later when his master, the Elector of Hanover, was crowned King George I of England!
Legend has it that Handel was restored to favour after composing a suite of dance movements as a surprise for the King during a boating party on the Thames in 1717. Water Music, contains some of Handel's most memorable music, along with his Music for the Royal Fireworks, written for another royal occasion in 1749.
Handel settled into a long and prosperous career in London, patronised by the royal family and held in high regard by the British public. At the same time, Handel was engaged to compose operas and find singers for the Royal Academy of Music, a company set up to present Italian opera to the London public. Handel composed many of his 41 operas, including Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda for performance at the King's Theatre, Haymarket, and later at the Covent Garden Theatre.
In 1729 the Academy collapsed and Handel took over the theatre as entrepreneur as well as composer. More operas followed, including Alcina and Serse, but times were changing. A rival company, The Opera of the Nobility, was set up in 1733 and the two companies battled for singers, composers, and audiences. With the bankruptcy of both opera companies in 1737, Handel took a new direction. He turned his attention to the oratorio, a dramatic idiom for soloists and chorus, usually based on an Old Testament story that was essentially an opera but performed in concert rather than staged. Handel was writing for a new audience, the expanding British middle-classes, who, not enamoured with the aristocratic opera house and its tales from Classical mythology, were much happier to listen to an 'improving' biblical tale.
Handel expanded the role of the chorus in his oratorios, using the British choral tradition to advantage. Little-used in his operas, the chorus became essential to the dramatic impact of the oratorio. In the mid-1730s Handel leased a theatre for oratorio performances during Lent, when opera was not permitted. The concerts were extremely popular and had the added bonus of a performance, from Handel himself, of his own organ concertos during the interval.
By 1739 Handel had firmly established the oratorio with Saul and Israel in Egypt. In 1741 he travelled to Dublin to give a series of concerts for charity, the visit culminating in the first performance of Messiah, the most famous choral work in the English-speaking world. Handel's genius at writing for the chorus is exemplified in the dramatic 'Hallelujah Chorus'. At a performance of Messiah in London, the King was so moved by this chorus that he stood up, a tradition that has remained ever since.
Some of the instrumental music from the oratorios became well known pieces in their own right, e.g. 'The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba', from the oratorio Solomon. Such was the popular appeal of his music, Handel was often commissioned to compose for state events. His four anthems for the Coronation of George II in 1727 included 'Zadok the Priest', which has been sung at every British coronation since.
Handel's eyesight began to fail as he finished his last oratorio Jephtha (1752) and by 1753 he was virtually blind. He died in 1759 at the age of 74. Very much a 'national institution', the esteem in which London music-lovers held Handel was demonstrated at his funeral and burial in Westminster Abbey, which was attended by 3000 of his loyal public.
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