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George Frideric Handel London
(1685 –1759)

 

George Frideric Handel, the much loved Baroque composer, was born in Germany on 23 February 1685 and a contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach and Antonio Vivaldi. He moved to London in 1712.
 
His father was an eminent barber surgeon who also served as valet to the courts of Saxe-Weissenfels and the Margrgraviate of Brandenburg.
 
Handel was not born into a musical family; in fact his genius was actively discouraged by his father who was intent on him studying Civic Law.
 
He was forbidden to touch a musical instrument but nothing could stop the determined little boy. He secretly managed to get a little clavichord installed in a room at the top of the family house. When the family was asleep he would steal up to this room and practise playing on the instrument.
 
Handel's Talent Recognised
Before the age of seven the talented little Handel was performing in front of Duke Johann Adolf I of Weissenfels. The Duke persuaded Handel’s father to allow the little boy to study musical composition and keyboard technique from the organist of the Lutheran Marienkirche. The young Handel became a skilled performer on the harpsichord and pipe organ.
 
From the age of seven George Frideric learned about harmony and contemporary styles, analysed scores, learned to work fugue subjects and copy music. Sometimes he would take his teacher's place as organist for services.
 
In 1698, aged 13, Handel played for Frederick of Prussia and met the Italian composer, Giovanni Bonnoncini in Berlin.
 
Meeting Georg Telemann
His fame as a performer spread and in 1701 the German Baroque composer, Telemann came to Halle to hear him play. The two young men had a lot in common; Telemann musically was entirely self taught, was a multi-instrumentalist and had studied law. They became lifelong friends.
 
Hamburg Opera House
In 1702 Handel obeyed his father’s wishes and attended Halle University to study law. He also got himself appointed as organist at the Protestant cathedral. After a year, he must have decided that law was not for him and he wished to pursue a musical career. He moved to Hamburg taking up a position as violinist and harpsichordist in the orchestra of the Opera House. This was where Handel started writing and producing operas.
 
Move to Italy 1706
In the early 18th century Italy was the centre of musical innovation with Florence being the ‘capital’. It was to here that Handel travelled in 1706. Ferdinando de' Medici’s patronage and interest in opera had attracted the leading talents of his day to the city. Handel spent four years in Italy, working in Florence, Rome, Naples and Venice, composing and collaborating with the librettist Antonio Salvi. During this time he established his reputation for composing opera.
 
During his stay in Italy Handel made many useful contacts, one being the English Ambassador, the Duke of Manchester, and Prince Enst August of Hanover who suggested there might be a position with his brother, the Elector.
 
Sent to England
In 1710, now aged 25, Handel became Kapellmeister to George, Elector of Hanover. In this position he was responsible for all music-making at the Prince’s court. George was in line to succeed to the English throne so he promptly sent Handel off on a year’s leave of absence to England to check out the music, cultural and political scene.
 
Handel arrived in England with letters of introduction to members of the aristocracy who were happy to become his patron. He was received favourably at Queen Anne’s Court and had an enormous success with "Rinaldo", his first Italian Opera specially composed for London.
 
Queen Anne's Birthday
In 1712 he was invited to produce an English Court Ode for Queen Anne’s birthday. The delighted queen gave him a pension of £200 a year for life, and Handel decided to stay in England permanently.
 
Accession of King George 1
George I of Hanover became King George I of England in 1714. One of the king’s first engagements was to attend morning service at the Chapel Royal in St James's Palace where ''…a Te Deum was sung, composed by Mr Handel".
 
Composer to the Chapel Royal
Handel was promptly appointed as the King’s and Court’s official music master. He was responsible for the musicians and choir of the Chapel Royal and for teaching the princesses to play music. In 1720 he published some keyboard suites which he may well have composed for his royal students. He was also to compose musical entertainments for the King and Court.
 
Handel's Water Music
One such entertainment was a concert on the River Thames for which Handel was commissioned to write 'Water Music', for wind and strings.
 
On a summer evening in July, 1717 the King and his guests sat in the Royal Barge while the full court orchestra minus the harpsichord was loaded aboard a large barge which was rowed back and forth past the King. The orchestral piece consisted of three suites so was quite lengthy. The King was so delighted with the result that he demanded the musicians and exhausted boatman repeat the performance twice more. The party did not end until after midnight! "Handel’s Water Music" has remained popular right up to the present day.
 
Change of Position 1717
Security was all very well but Handel was an entrepreneur and innovator. He craved the excitement of the opera and the challenge of grabbing a fickle public audience’s attention. In 1717 he took a position as resident composer with the Duke of Chandos.
 
The Duke maintained a private group of singers and instrumentalists for use in his two houses - his central London home and his country estate ‘Canons’ in Edgeware, Middlesex. In the two years of this appointment, Handel composed eleven anthems, a Te Deum and two masques.
 
At the same time a group of the nobility created an Italian opera company in London, initially funded by an eight-year subscription. It was called 'The Royal Academy of Music' with Handel as its music director. Handel engaged the best English singers and instrumentalists and brought in Italian opera ‘stars’ from Dresden. As a good entrepreneur he was also their Manager and took a percentage of their earnings. Over a period of eight years, half of the operas performed were composed by Handel.
 
Handel the Philanthropist
Handel was an extremely complex man; he was able to move in aristocratic circles persuading wealthy noblemen to invest in his projects but at the same time he had a strong social conscience. Some of his best friends were social reformers and philanthropists such as artist William Hogarth and Sir Thomas Coram. Handel became a generous benefactor of Coram’s Foundling Hospital - refer to the article titled 'The Foundling Museum' in this website.
 
British Naturalization 1727
In 1727 he became a naturalized British subject. All this time Handel was still employed by the Court as composer to the Chapel Royal. When King George II came to the throne Handel composed four great anthems for the Coronation. One of these, "Zadok the Priest", has been sung at every Coronation since.
 
By 1728 Italian opera was being replaced with musical drama. John Gay’s "Beggar’s Opera" was a play with songs (some written by Handel). Political and cultural satire was becoming popular and signalled a change in London’s musical tastes. The esoteric Italian opera with its castrato singers was on its way out.
 
Handel refused to acknowledge the change and continued to unsuccessfully produce Italian opera. He lost many of his patrons (including the Prince of Wales) and eventually lost the lease of his performance venue, the King’s Theatre.
 
Oratorios
The time had come to change his approach so he started composing Oratorios – musical dramatisations of biblical stories. This earned him a ban by the Bishop of London. As with all censorship this only served to make these biblical musical dramatizations more popular.
 
As can be imagined, Handel was subjected to a great deal of stress over this period and in April 1737 he suffered a stroke. His right hand was affected and his friends and patrons were concerned he might never compose or play again. Handel spent six weeks at a European Spa and returned miraculously healed, able to play the organ and ready to start composing again.
 
Handel concentrated on composing English oratorios with plenty of scope for choruses, such as "Alexander’s Feast". He also composed much more for orchestras. Initially these pieces were interludes in the oratorios but soon became popular in their own right.
 
By 1740 Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens on the south side of the River Thames were THE social venue. Patrons would stroll among ornamental shrubs and flowers, and partake of refreshments, whilst enjoying performances of instrumental and vocal music by leading composers and musicians. Handel’s new compositions were in favour again.
 
The Messiah
In 1741 Handel composed his most famous piece "The Messiah" for a performance in Dublin in 1742. He was requested by the Lord Lieutenant to compose a new sacred oratorio which would cap a series of performances of "Alexander's Feast, Acis and Galatea, the Ode for St Cecilia's Day and L'Allegro".
 
"The Messiah" was a stunning success and Handel enthusiastically promoted a subscription oratorio season at Covent Garden in 1743. He composed a new oratorio, "Samson, and Messiah" was performed again. He suffered another small stroke but quickly recovered. A steady stream of large scale works followed, mainly oratorios which he produced.
 
Music for the Royal Fireworks 1749
In 1749 King George II contracted Handel to compose some music to accompany a grand fireworks display in Green Park, London. The display was to celebrate the end of the War of the Austrian Succession and the signing of the Treaty of Aiix-la-Chapelle.
 
Handel organized a full rehearsal of his music in the Vauxhall Gardens six days before the grand event. In spite of an admission fee of two shillings and sixpence being charged, 12,000 people attended the performance.
 
The fireworks display itself was a bit of a disaster but the music was enormously successful. Handel tried to have it published as an overture, but the King insisted it must be called "Music for the Royal Fireworks".
 
Foundling Hospital Bequest
In 1750, as part of his philanthropy, Handel arranged a performance of "Messiah" to benefit the Foundling Hospital. It was such a success that it became an annual event during his lifetime. Handel remained a benefactor and Governor of the charitable institution for the remainder of his life. He bequeathed a copy of "Messiah" to the hospital upon his death.
 
Failing Eyesight
For the last nine years of his life Handel was plagued with failing eyesight. He had cataracts and he lost the sight in his left eye just after he had completed his last oratorio, "Jephtha".
 
A year later he lost the sight in his right eye. So great was his memory and his powers of improvisation that blindness did not prevent him from performing; he continued to perform organ concertos and voluntaries between the parts of his oratorios. He remained involved in the arrangements for performances of his works right up until his death on 14 April 1759, aged 74.
 
More than three thousand mourners attended his funeral, which was given full state honours, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey.
 
A visit to the Handel House Museum and the Foundling Hospital Museum, both in central London is a great way to learn more about the life and times of this remarkable Baroque composer whose music we still enjoy today.
 
Google Map - Handel House Museum