George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759)

George Frideric Handel stands with J.S. Bach as one of the giants of Baroque Music.

Handel was born in Halle, Germany. He showed musical ability at an early age. After a period living in Italy, Handel became employed as a composer to the Elector of Hanover, who would become Britain’s King George I. After moving to London, Handel became a British subject. Handel experimented with Italian opera and composed 42 operas over his lifetime, including the English text Acis and Galatea, which became his most popular work during his lifetime. Mozart even arranged a version of it. Other successful operas include Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano, and Rinaldo.

While in the employ of various British monarchs, Handel wrote some of his most famous works, such as the Water Music suites, which were performed for King George I on a barge as he sailed on the Thames, and the Music for the Royal Fireworks for wind band, written for King George II. The music proved successful, but the fireworks caused a fire that destroyed the building. He also wrote the anthem Zadok the Priest for the coronation of George II. It has been played at every English coronation ceremony since then.

Like Bach, Handel was a virtuoso organist and wrote several concertos for the instrument. Early in his career, while he was in Italy, Handel first turned to religious subjects for his works, starting with an oratorio, La Resurrezione (The Resurrection). He continued to draw on Biblical themes for several oratorios, including Esther, Saul, Samson, Jephthah, Israel in Egypt, Belshazzar, and Xerxes. However, it was with his best known work that Handel entered musical immortality: Messiah.

Handel’s physical and financial health were both failing in 1741 when his friend, Charles Jennens, provided him a libretto based on the life of Christ, with the text coming entirely from the Bible. At about the same time, Handel received a commission to write a piece for a benefit concert in Dublin. Handel was especially inspired by the text and composed and orchestrated the entire piece in 24 days. The piece is divided into three sections, which roughly correspond to Old Testament prophecies of the birth of Jesus, the Passion and Resurrection, and finally the eternal victory of Christ at the Second Coming. The most famous part of the work is the “Hallelujah” Chorus. After completing it, Handel’s servant entered the room and saw the startled composer in tears. Handel told him:

“I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.”

At its first performance in Dublin, it raised enough money to free 142 men from debtor’s prison. The following year, at its first London performance, the King was so moved by the work that at the start of the “Hallelujah” Chorus, he stood up, which forced everyone else in attendance to stand, as well. This started a tradition that still continues, 250 years later. Messiah established Handel’s popularity and provided him with financial security for the rest of his life. It continued to be performed for benefits concerts, raising thousands of pounds for various charitable causes, including annual concerts for the London Foundling Hospital. Biographer Percy Young commented, “Perhaps the works of no other composer have so largely contributed to the relief of human suffering.”

Handel died just a few minutes after Good Friday ended in 1759. His funeral was attended by thousands and he was buried at Westminster Abbey. His reputation among other composers is of the highest level. Several composers wrote music based on some of Handel’s themes, including Mozart, Spohr, Beethoven, Brahms, Schoenberg, and Percy Grainger, who used the Harmonious Blacksmith as the basis for his piece, Handel in the Strand. Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all considered him to be the greatest composer who ever lived.

Suggested Listening:

Suggested Viewing:

A Handel Celebration (Recorded live at the BBC Proms)

Suggested Reading: