George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
George Frideric Handel was a German-born English composer. Active in multiple cities in Europe, he composed in every musical genre of his time, including operas, oratorios, keyboard pieces (such as dance suites), solo and trio sonatas, orchestral music (suites, concertos, and overtures, sinfonias, and dances within his operas and oratorios), and vocal works both sacred and secular. Handel originally established his reputation as a composer of opera, a role that dominated his career for over three decades. He later invented the genre of the English oratorio—large-scale vocal dramas that incorporate the elements of opera, including chorus, but without staging and scenery—of which Messiah remains the most famous and frequently performed. Handel’s musical style is regarded as an eclectic combination of various aspects of European music of his day: beautiful, inventive melodies á là the Italians, the stately qualities of French overtures and dances, and a Germanic foundation in harmony and counterpoint. This cosmopolitan blend, plus his gift for amassing vocal and orchestral forces for dramatic effect are among the reasons why his music continues to appeal to performers and audiences today.
Born in Halle on February 23, 1685, Handel was initially prevented by his father from studying music. Eventually, with the persuasion of the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels, the elder Handel (who was under his employ) allowed his son to study organ, harpsichord, and composition with Friedrich Zachow. In 1703, Handel left Halle to pursue opportunities as an opera composer in key European cities in which the genre was flourishing—first, in Hamburg, then in Rome, where the sensational success of his second all-Italian opera, Agrippina, in 1709, cemented his name across the continent. Two years later, he completed Rinaldo, the first all-Italian opera written for London audiences (who had a taste for the art form) and another huge success. Over the next two decades, Handel gradually settled in London, continuing to compose Italian operas while also taking on the duties of an impresario (notably, for London’s Royal Academy of Music, 1719–1728), as well as writing choral music (in 1723, he was made honorary composer of music for His Majesty’s Chapel Royal). He became a naturalized British subject in 1727.
The 1730s saw the peak of Handel’s career as an opera composer in London, with the premieres of Ariodante and Alcina in 1735 at a new theatre in Covent Garden. However, after years of dealing with the politics and the volatile nature of the business plus the fickle tastes of the public, he decided to turn his attention to creating oratorios as well as organ concertos, another genre of his own invention. (He included these concertos in oratorio concerts, performing the solo part himself.) Taking the successful premiere of Messiah in Dublin in April 1742 as a sign to move forward, he eventually established regular seasons in London for the performance of his oratorios, during Lent when opera was not presented. In the 1750s, his declining eyesight considerably slowed down his ability to compose, revise, and read scores, but he continued to play organ concertos by improvising the solo part, and, with aid, supervise the oratorio seasons until March 1759. On April 14, 1759, Handel died in London, and was buried at Westminster Abbey.
By Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley