Composer Profile: George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Handel by Balthasar Denner c1726
Portrait of Handel by Balthasar Denner, c.1726

Born in the same year as J. S. Bach and outliving him by nine years, Handel, who was something of a bon vivant, was in many ways the opposite of his somewhat ascetic countryman.

Relatively little is known of Handel’s personal life: he was born in Halle, Germany, and his father, a barber-surgeon of advanced years and considerable reputation, was determined that he should study law. The young Handel was thus forbidden from pursuing his passion for music, but continued to do so on the sly. He did begin studying law at the University of Halle in 1702 but also obtained a position as organist in the local reformed church (previously the cathedral). It seems he never looked back: in 1703 he joined the orchestra in Hamburg, and his first two operas were produced in 1705.

Alessandro Moreschi d1922 last castrato
The last castrato: Alessandro Moreschi (d.1922), and the only castrato known to have left recordings to posterity.

For, unlike Bach, Handel seems to have loved opera, and his early career was built on producing operas in the then-popular Italian style, which consisted largely of singers in costume, dominated by the famed castratos, standing around on stage singing brilliant and highly-complex music to an audience who may or may not be paying attention. Plots were so full of holes as to be non-existent, and acting ability was not required, but the music was reportedly of such beauty and complexity – even before the singers added their own embellishments, as they were expected to do – that some of it is all but impossible to reproduce today.

It is around this time that Handel seems to have spent several years in Italy before being appointed Kapellmeister (effectively ‘person in charge of music) to the German prince George, Elector of Hanover. This must have caused some awkwardness later, as Handel requested leave from court to travel to London, then a major centre of culture, in order to experience the musical culture there. This was granted on condition that he return to court, which he never did. Prince George, however, went on to become King George I of Great Britain and Ireland, following the death of Queen Anne in 1714 (interesting historic fact: there were dozens of closer relatives of the Queen who could have taken the throne, but they were all Catholic and the 1701 Act of Settlement prohibited a Catholic from ascending the throne). Anyway, it can’t have been easy for Handel to have his former employer suddenly rock up in his new homeland… as king. The two seem to have made it up though, and Handel did very well out of royal patronage for much of his career.

Handel caricature Joseph Groupy 1754
Caricature of Handel by his friend Joseph Groupy, 1754. For this, Handel reportedly cut Groupy from his will, although they later reconciled.

Particular highlights of Handel’s relationship with the monarchy include several of his most famous pieces. His ‘Water Music’ was performed for the King at his request no less than three times in July of 1717. He composed four anthems for the coronation of King George II in 1727, including ‘Zadok the Priest’, which has been played at every British coronation since. And his ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks’ debuted in 1749 before an audience of 12,000.

But it is for a religious work, his oratorio ‘Messiah’, that Handel remains best-remembered today. There are several theories surrounding Handel’s transition from opera to religious music, which dates from 1737. Some biographers have linked it to a stroke and mental disturbances which he suffered that year, which led to a religious experience. Others have pointed out that 1737 was also the year that Handel’s operatic venture at the King’s Theatre folded. Opera had been in decline in Britain for years, and Handel may well have seen the writing on the wall and decided it was time to turn his prodigious talents elsewhere.

Messiah’, the most famous of the resulting religious works, was first performed in 1742 at the New Music Hall in Dublin. Handel was a notorious plagiarist (although he seems to have been largely forgiven for this by audiences of the time), and although the music of ‘Messiah’ is his own composition the lyrics are lifted directly from the King James Bible, to admittedly spectacular effect. But I’ve raved about ‘Messiah’ before. Enough to know that that first performance raised enough money – over four hundred pounds – to release a hundred and forty-two men from debtor’s prison, and the oratorio has proven to be Handel’s most enduring work.

Handels grave
Handel’s grave at Westminster Abbey.

In 1751 Handel’s sight began to fail, and he went completely blind in 1752. He died at home in London in 1759 and was buried with full state honours at Westminster Abbey. He had never married, and the bulk of his estate was left to a niece, Johanna, with the remainder distributed amongst friends, family, servants, and charities.

As a side-note, here’s a recording of Moreschi, the only castrato known to have made any recordings, singing Ave Maria. What do you think?

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