The 100 most Influential Musicians Of All Time – George Frideric Handel
(b. Feb. 23, 1685, Halle, Brandenburg [Germany]—d. April 14, 1759, London, Eng.)
AGerman-born English composer of the late Baroque era, George Frideric Handel—or, Georg Friedrich Händel, as he was known for the ﬁrst 30 years of his life—was noted particularly for his operas, oratorios, and instrumental compositions. He wrote the most famous of all oratorios, Messiah (1741), and is also known for such occasional pieces as Water Music (1717) and Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749).
The son of a barber-surgeon, Handel showed a marked gift for music and became a pupil in Halle of the composer Friedrich W. Zachow, from whom he learned the principles of keyboard performance and composition. In 1702 Handel enrolled as a law student at the University of Halle. He also became organist of the Reformed (Calvinist) Cathedral in Halle but served for only one year before going north to Hamburg. In Hamburg he joined the violin section of the opera orchestra and also took over some of the duties of harpsichordist; early in 1705 he presided over the premiere in Hamburg of his ﬁrst opera, Almira.
Handel spent the years 1706–10 traveling in Italy, where he met many of the greatest Italian musicians of the day. He composed many works in Italy, including two operas, numerous Italian solo cantatas (vocal compositions), Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno (1707) and another oratorio, the serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (1708), and some Latin (i.e., Roman Catholic) church music. His opera Agrippina enjoyed a sensational success at its premiere in Venice in 1710.
Also in 1710 Handel was appointed Kapellmeister to the elector of Hanover, the future King George I of England, and later that year he journeyed to England.
Handel’s opera Rinaldo was performed in London in 1711 and was greeted with great enthusiasm. Over the next two years his operas Il pastor ﬁdo (1712) and Teseo (1713) were also staged in London. In 1713 he won his way into royal favour by his Ode for the Queen’s Birthday and the Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate in celebration of the Peace of Utrecht, and he was granted an annual allowance of £200 by Queen Anne.
On the death of Queen Anne in 1714, the elector George Louis became King George I of England, and Handel subsequently made England his permanent home. In 1718 he became director of music to the duke of Chandos, for whom he composed the 11 Chandos Anthems and the English masque Acis and Galatea, among other works. Another masque, Haman and Mordecai, was to be the effective starting point for the English oratorio.
In 1726 Handel ofﬁcially became a British subject, which enabled him to be appointed a composer of the Chapel Royal. In this capacity he wrote much music, including the Coronation Anthems for George II in 1727 and the Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline 10 years later.
From 1720 until 1728 the operas at the King’s Theatre in London were staged by the Royal Academy of Music, and Handel composed the music for most of them. Among those of the 1720s were Floridante (1721), Ottone (1723), Giulio Cesare (1724), Rodelinda (1725), and Scipione (1726).
From 1728, after the sensation caused by John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (which satirized serious opera), the Italian style went into decline in England, largely because of the impatience of the English with a form of entertainment in an unintelligible language sung by artists of whose morals they disapproved. But Handel went on composing operas until 1741, by which time he had written more than 40 such works. As the popularity of opera declined in England, oratorio became increasingly popular.
The revivals in 1732 of Handel’s masques Acis and Galatea and Haman and Mordecai (renamed Esther) led to the establishment of the English oratorio—a large musical composition for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra, without acting or scenery, and usually dramatizing a story from the Bible in English- language lyrics. Handel ﬁrst capitalized on this genre in 1733 with Deborah and Athalia.
In 1737 Handel suffered what appears to have been a mild stroke. After a course of treatment in Aachen (Germany), he was restored to health and went on to compose the Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline (1737) and two of his most celebrated oratorios, Saul and Israel in Egypt, both of which were performed in 1739. He also wrote the Twelve Grand Concertos, Opus 6, and helped establish the Fund for the Support of Decayed Musicians (now the Royal Society of Musicians).
Handel was by this time at the height of his powers, and the year 1741 saw the composition of his greatest oratorio, Messiah, and its inspired successor, Samson. Messiah was given its ﬁrst performance in Dublin on April 13, 1742, and created a deep impression. Handel’s works of the next three years included the oratorios Joseph and His Brethren (ﬁrst performed 1744) and Belshazzar (1745), the secular oratorios Semele (1744) and Hercules (1745), and the Dettingen Te Deum (1743), celebrating the English victory over the French at the Battle of Dettingen.
Handel had by this time made oratorio and large-scale choral works the most pop- ular musical forms in England. Even during his lifetime Handel’s music was recognized as a reﬂection of the English national character, and his capacity for realizing the common mood was nowhere better shown than in the Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749), with which he cele- brated the peace of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. Handel now began to experience trouble with his sight.
He managed with great difﬁculty to ﬁnish the last of his oratorios, Jephtha, which was performed at Covent Garden Theatre, London, in 1752. He kept his interest in musical activities alive until the end. After his death on April 14, 1759, he was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
The ﬁrst basis of Handel’s style was the north German music of his childhood, but it was soon completely overlaid by the Italian style that he acquired in early adulthood during his travels in Italy. The inﬂuences of Arcangelo Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti can be detected in his work to the end of his long life, and the French style of Jean-Baptiste Lully and, later, that of the English composer Henry Purcell are also evident. There is a robustness in Handel’s later music that gives it a very English quality.
Above all, his music is eminently vocal. His choral writing is remarkable for the manner in which it interweaves massive but simple harmonic passages with contrapuntal sections of great ingenuity, the whole most effectively illustrating the text. His writing for the solo voice is outstanding in its suitability for the medium. Handel had a striking ability to depict human character musically in a single scene or aria, a gift used with great dramatic power in his operas and oratorios.
Though the bulk of his music was vocal, Handel was nevertheless one of the great instrumental composers of the late Baroque era. His long series of overtures (mostly in the French style), his orchestral concertos (Opus 3 and Opus 6), his large-scale concert music for strings and winds (such as the Water Music and the Fireworks Music), and the massive double concertos and organ concertos all show him to have been a complete master of the orchestral means at his command.
Handel had a lifelong attachment to the theatre—even his oratorios were usually performed on the stage rather than in church. Like other composers of his time, he accepted the conventions of Italian opera, with its employ- ment of male sopranos and contraltos and the formalized sequences of stylized recitatives and arias upon which opera seria was constructed.
Using these conventions, he produced Italian operas, such as Giulio Cesare (1724), Sosarme (1732), and Alcina (1735), which still make impressive stage spectacles. But Handel’s oratorios now seem even more dramatic than his operas, and they can generally be performed on the stage with remarkably little alteration. Most of them, from early attempts such as Esther to later works such as Saul, Samson, Belshazzar, and Jephtha, treat a particular dramatic theme taken from the Hebrew Bible that illus- trates the heroism and suffering of a particular individual.
The story line is illustrated by solo recitatives and arias and underlined by the chorus. With Israel in Egypt and Messiah, however, the emphasis is quite different, Israel because of its uninterrupted chain of massive choruses, which do not lend themselves to stage presentation, and Messiah because it is a meditation on the life of Christ the Saviour rather than a dramatic narration of his Passion.
Handel also used the dramatic oratorio genre for a number of secular works, chief among which are Semele, Hercules, and Acis and Galatea, all based on stories from Greek mythology.
Handel’s most notable contribution to church music is his series of large-scale anthems. Foremost of these are the 11 Chandos Anthems. Closely following these works are the
four Coronation Anthems for George II, the most celebrated of which is Zadok the Priest.
Most of the orchestral music Handel wrote consists of overtures, totaling about 80 in number. Handel was equally adept at the concerto form, especially the concerto grosso.
His most important works of this type are the Six Concerti Grossi (known as The Oboe Concertos), Opus 3, and the Twelve Grand Concertos, which represent the peak of the Baroque concerto grosso for stringed instruments.
The Water Music and Fireworks Music suites, for wind and string band, stand in a special class in the history of late Baroque music by virtue of their combination of grandeur and melodic bravura. Handel also published harpsichord music, of which two sets of suites, the Suites de pièces pour le clavecin of 1720 and the Suites de pièces of 1733, containing 17 sets in all, are his ﬁnest contribution to that instrument’s repertoire.
Handel’s ﬁnest chamber music consists of trio sonatas, notably those published as Six Sonatas for Two Violins, Oboes, or German Flutes and Continuo, Opus 2 (1733). He also wrote various sonatas for one or more solo instruments with basso continuo accompaniment for harpsichord. In addition, he composed more than 20 organ concertos.