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George Frideric Handel: Overview

George Frideric Handel: George Frideric Handel (b. Halle, 23 Feb 1685; d. London, 14 April 1759).

George Frideric Handel was born in 1685, son of an elderly Halle barber-surgeon, Georg Handel, by his second wife, Dorothea. The elder Handel was a rather severe man, and when George Frideric began to show an interest in music he discouraged him - recommending that the boy should follow a more serious pursuit such as law. Georg (Sr) held the appointment of barber-surgeon at Saxe-Weissenfels and in 1693 young George accompanied him on a visit. Whilst they were there the Duke overheard the young George Frideric Handel playing the organ in the chapel and urged his father to permit him to study music seriously. Georg rather grudgingly agreed, but was still determined that his son should pursue a legal career. The boy was placed with Friedrich Wilhelm Zachau, organist of St Michael's Church, Halle, and under him studied composition, oboe, violin, as well as organ and harpsichord. Progress was rapid. Zachau had quite an extensive musical library containing French and Italian music as well as German, so the boy was able to become acquainted with the various national styles at an early age.

In 1695 George Frideric George Frideric Handel was taken on a trip to Berlin where he met the eminent composers Ariosti and Bononcini, whom he was to meet again in later years. Shortly after returning to Halle, George Frideric Handel's father died - but the old man's influence persisted and in 1702 George Frideric entered the University of Halle to study law. Music obviously had a stronger appeal and soon he became organist of Halle Cathedral. The appointment was short-lived, and he moved on to Hamburg where there was a famous Opera House 'on the Goosemarket'. George Frideric Handel was given employment firstly as one of the ripieno violinists and later as harpsichordist. The composer, singer and harpsichordist Johann Mattheson was a colleague of George Frideric Handel's at the opera house; the two young men became firm friends and travelled to Liibeck together where the ageing organist Dietrich Buxtehude was contemplating retirement. On their arrival they discovered that one of the conditions of succeeding to Buxtehude's position entailed marrying Buxtehude's daughter. Both men beat a hasty retreat.

A year or so after returning to Hamburg, George Frideric Handel and Mattheson quarrelled - George Frideric Handel refusing to allow Mattheson to take over the direction of one of the latter's operas. They drew swords, and an angry duel was fought in the Goosemarket. Mattheson in later years commented that the result might have bee disastrous, 'Had not God's guidance graciously ordained that my blade thrusting against the broad metallic coat button of my opponent should be shattered.' The two quickly forgave each other and Mattheson attended the rehearsals of George Frideric Handel's first opera Almira, which was produced with great success on the 8th January 1705. A second opera Nerone produced six weeks later was less successful. George Frideric Handel then made the decision to travel to Italy, at that time the European centre of opera. How he got to Italy or exactly when he arrived there, we do not know. He was certainly in Florence in the summer of 1706, and is supposed to have written the opera Rodrigo for performance there. From then on George Frideric Handel astonished the Italians with his virtuosity in organ playing, and Domenico Scarlatti was his only possible rival as a harpsichordist. George Frideric Handel met Scarlatti in 1708, and the story of a (musical!) contest between the two is recounted in the article on Domenico Scarlatti in the present volume. The contest took place at the palace of Cardinal Ottoboni in Rome, in whose service was the eminent violinist Arcangelo Corelli. George Frideric Handel would also have met Alessandro Scarlatti at this time.

Several of George Frideric Handel's compositions on Latin texts date from this period - the Dixit Dominus, Laudate pueri, and Gloria patri; although George Frideric Handel rigidly adhered to his Protestant faith. He visited Venice probably in the autumn of 1707, but returned to Rome where he composed a splendid oratorio La Resurrezione which was performed on Easter Day 1708, with Corelli leading the orchestra. By June 1708 George Frideric Handel was in Naples where his serenata A ci, Galatea e Polifemo was performed, and which must undoubtedly have suggested the later English version Acis and Galatea. He was back in Rome during the spring of 1709 where he may have met the composer-diplomat Agostino Steffani. He was commissioned to write an opera for Venice, and his Agrippina was produced there on the 26th December 1709. Whilst in Venice he met Prince Ernst of Hanover, younger brother of the Elector, who invited him to Hanover. So after four years George Frideric Handel left Italy and returned to Germany where he was appointed Kapellmeister to the Court of Hanover. George Frideric Handel did not remain in Germany for long, he received an invitation to visit England, and after obtaining leave of absence, set off for London.

George Frideric Handel arrived in London late in 1710 and found a flourishing musical environment which for fifteen years since the death of Henry Purcell had lacked a leader. The aristocracy craved for Italian opera as George Frideric Handel's first biographer Mainwaring wrote: "At this time, operas were a sort of new acquaintance, but began to be established in the affections of the nobility, many of whom had heard and admired performances of this kind in the country which gave them birth. But the conduct of them here, all that regards the drama, or plan, including also the machinery, scenes and decorations, were foolish and absurd almost beyond imagination. . . . The arrival of George Frideric Handel put an end to this reign of nonsense."

George Frideric Handel composed Rinaldo in a fortnight, and the work, first produced at the Queen's Theatre in the Haymarket on the 24th February 1711, was a tremendous success - indeed it secured George Frideric Handel's British reputation for ever. The London publisher Walsh made so much money by printing songs from it that George Frideric Handel rather dryly remarked that Walsh had better write the next opera and he, George Frideric Handel, would publish it. Feted everywhere, it was probably with some reluctance that George Frideric Handel, aware of his responsibilities in Hanover, returned to Germany. The lure of success in London was too great and in the spring of 1712 he left once more for England, having promised to return to Hanover 'in reasonable time'.

Il Pastor Fido was performed at the Haymarket on the 22nd November 1712 and was followed by Teseo in January 1713, neither of which matched the success of Rinaldo. For Queen Anne's birthday on the 6th February 1713 he composed a delightful Birthday Ode (the first time that he had set English words), and his grand Te Deum for the peace of Utrecht was sung at St Paul's Cathedral on the 7th July. The Queen was an ailing woman and could not attend the Cathedral ceremony, but had the music repeated privately. Such was Her Majesty's pleasure that she awarded George Frideric Handel a royal pension of £200 per annum. George Frideric Handel was by now well established, and remained in London, ignoring his promise to return to Hanover within a 'reasonable time'.

Queen Anne died in 1714, and George Frideric Handel's employer the Elector of Hanover succeeded her as King George I of England. He arrived in Britain on the 18th September, and ten days later the new King attended a service in the Chapel Royal at St James's during which George Frideric Handel's Te Deum was sung. It was presumably at this time that the reconciliation took place, and not, as popular legend would have us believe, through the composition of the Water Music, which dates from 1717. Indeed, in 1716 the King took George Frideric Handel with him when he visited Germany. At this time George Frideric Handel seems to have persuaded his old friend Johann Christoph Schmidt of Ansbach to return with him to London, where as John Christopher Smith he became George Frideric Handel's scribe and amanuensis. Back in London, George Frideric Handel revived Rinaldo and Amadigi. It was at this time that the famous Water Music was performed at a royal water party on the Thames. The event, which took place on the 17th July 1717, was chronicled by Bonet, the Prussian resident in London, who reported to Berlin that: "A few weeks ago the King expressed to Baron Kilmanseck his desire to have a concert on the river, by subscription, similar to the masquerades this winter which the King never failed to attend. The Baron accordingly applied to Heidecker - a Swiss by origin, but the cleverest purveyor of entertainments to the nobility. The latter replied that, much as he would wish to comply with His Majesty's desires, he must reserve subscriptions for the great events, namely the masquerades, each of which bring him in three or four hundred guineas net. Observing His Majesty's chagrin at these difficulties, M. de Kilmanseck undertook to provide the concert on the river at his own expense. The necessary orders were given and the entertainment took place the day before yesterday. At about eight in the evening the King repaired to his barge, into which were admitted the Duchess of Bolton, Countess Godolphin, Madame de Kilmanseck, Mrs Were and the Earl of Orkney, the Gentlemen of the Bedchamber in Waiting. Next to the King's barge was that of the musicians, about 50 in number, who played on all kinds of instruments, to wit trumpets, horns, hautboys, bassoons, German flutes, French flutes [recorders], violins and basses; but there were no singers. The music had been composed specially by the famous George Frideric Handel, a native of Halle, and His Majesty's principal Court Composer. His Majesty approved of it so greatly that he caused it to be repeated three times in all, although each performance lasted an hour - namely twice before and once after supper. The evening was all that could be desired for the festivity, the number of barges and above all of boats filled with people desirous of hearing was beyond counting."

George Frideric Handel became composer-in-residence to the Duke of Chandos at Cannons - he did not replace Dr Pepusch the music director, as is sometimes said. Here George Frideric Handel composed his twelve Chandos Anthems which contain some of his finest church music. Acis and Galatea, one of the most enchanting of all his works, dates from this period. George Frideric Handel left Cannons in the early spring of 1719 - having decided to start a new Italian opera company to be called the Royal Academy of Music, and which would centre around the King's Theatre in the Haymarket. On the 21st February, The Original Weekly Journal reported that: 'Mr Hendle, a famous Master of Musick, is gone beyond the Sea, by Order of His Majesty, to collect a Company of the choicest Singers in Europe, for the Opera in the Haymarket.'

The Academy opened its first season in the spring of 1720 with a performance of an opera by Porta, Il numitore. George Frideric Handel produced his opera Radamisto, and it was a great success. In November 1720 George Frideric Handel published his first collection of harpsichord lessons, the Suites de Pieces pour le Clavecin, which included an air and variations which posterity has styled 'The Harmonious Blacksmith'. The opera project continued to flourish. One of his greatest masterpieces Giulio Cesare was produced in February 1724, and Tamerlano, Rodelinda, Scipione, and Alessandro followed in quick succession. In 1727 George Frideric Handel applied successfully for naturalisation as a British subject. King George I died in June 1727 and George Frideric Handel busily prepared anthems for the coronation of King George II on the 11th October. Four magnificent anthems were the result including the magnificent Zadok the Priest, which has been heard at practically all British coronations since.

In January 1728, John Gay produced his Beggar's Opera at John Rich's Theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields. It was immensely successful, in fact one of the greatest theatrical successes of all time. No longer was opera the sole preserve of the aristocracy; Gay's English 'folk' opera appealed to a far wider audience. Within six months, George Frideric Handel's Academy was bankrupt. Undeterred, a new subscription was soon proposed and George Frideric Handel once again set off for the continent to collect singers. The new company opened with George Frideric Handel's Lotario in December 1729, but the work was a failure. George Frideric Handel revived several of his early successes - Giulio Cesare, Rinaldo and Rodelinda - while still continuing to write Italian opera. Elsewhere, Bernard Gates, Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, revived Haman and Mordecai as the 'oratorio' or religious opera Esther, and the Arne family presented Acis and Galatea as 'an English opera'. George Frideric Handel, however, still chose in the main to favour Italian opera. George Frideric Handel's audiences were enticed away by a rival Italian opera group called Opera of the Nobility, directed at first by his old rival Bononcini.

George Frideric Handel turned to English oratorio: Deborah was performed on the 13th March 1733, and the following month George Frideric Handel himself revived Esther, and at the same time instigated the tradition of playing organ concertos between the acts. Athalia was performed in Oxford in the summer of 1733. The Opera of the Nobility acquired the use of the King's Theatre, so George Frideric Handel entered into an agreement with John Rich to perform operas at Covent Garden. Rich had enlisted the services of the celebrated French ballerina Mile Marie Salle, and many of the operas which George Frideric Handel composed in the mid- 1730s for Covent Garden contain beautiful entrees de ballet. By 1735, both opera companies had suffered great financial losses.

George Frideric Handel had a change of fortune: his setting of Dryden's Ode for St Cecelia's Day, under the title Alexander's Feast, was a huge success. George Frideric Handel continued to compose Italian operas despite the fact that the public was becoming increasingly indifferent. George Frideric Handel's health suffered, and in the autumn of 1737, he went to Aix-la-Chapelle 'to take the waters'. The cure would appear to have been effective, and George Frideric Handel returned to London where he applied himself once again to Italian opera. Faramondo was followed by Serse which contains the melody 'Ombra mai fu', which has become widely known as George Frideric Handel's 'Largo'. (The tempo indication of the original, incidentally, islarghetto!).

In the summer of 1738 George Frideric Handel began working on his great oratorio Saul, on a text by Charles Jennens. His Six Organ Concertos Op.4 were published, and by November another large-scale oratorio Israel in Egypt was complete. The Twelve Concerti Grossi Op.6 followed in 1739: the publisher advertising a subscription list even before the last concerto had been finished. George Frideric Handel's setting of Milton's English poem with an Italian title L' Allegro ed il Penseroso ed il Moderato appeared in 1740. His last two Italian operas were Imeneo and Deidamia, the latter receiving only three performances. George Frideric Handel was now obliged to turn his attention to English oratorio; scarcely had he finished Messiah when he commenced another great work, Samson. George Frideric Handel travelled to Ireland in 1741 and it was in Dublin that Messiah received its first performance. It was an instantaneous success. George Frideric Handel remained in Ireland for ten months. On returning to London he continued his Lenten oratorio series with Samson. Messiah initially failed to summon the response that it had received in Dublin, but it soon grew in public esteem to such an extent that it became the most popular of George Frideric Handel's oratorios, even during the composer's lifetime. Numerous other oratorios followed including Semele, Belshazzar, Hercules, Susanna, Solomon and Judas Maccabeus. The Stuart rising called forth the Occasional Oratorio. On the 27th November 1743 the Dettingen Te Deum was performed in the Chapel Royal in commemoration of the victory of the English troops, and some six years later the celebrations of the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle prompted the composition of the Musick for the Royal Fireworks.

The success of the oratorios had fully reimbursed George Frideric Handel for the losses he suffered in the opera house, and he spent his last years in complete financial security. He became one of the Governors of the Foundling Hospital, and greatly increased its revenue by his annual charity performances of Messiah in the Chapel there; he also donated an organ for the Chapel. Gradually his sight began to fail him, an operation was only temporarily successful, and eventually he became totally blind. He still continued to give concerts, aided by John Christopher Smith the son of his old amanuensis, playing organ concertos from memory and extemporising. Dr Burney speaks of seeing him 'led to the organ... at upwards of seventy years of age, and then conducted towards the audience to make his customary obeisance...' On the 6th April 1759 he directed a performance of Messiah at Covent Garden, from the organ. He was taken ill upon returning to his home in Brook Street, and retired to his bed. He died on the 14th April, the day after Good Friday, and was buried in Westminster Abbey during the evening of the 20th April. George Frideric Handel had asked to be buried privately, but his wish was not granted - some 3,000 persons attended, and the choirs of Westminster Abbey, St Paul's Cathedral and the Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal took part in the service. George Frideric Handel requested that a monument be erected to his memory, and this wish was granted. The French sculptor Roubiliac was commissioned to produce a statue of George Frideric Handel which was duly placed in Westminster Abbey.

George Frideric Handel: CDs & Vinyl

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