Search This Blog

Thursday, 21 May 2015

George Frideric Handel


George Frideric Handel was born on February 23, 1685 in Halle, Duchy of Magdeburg, in modern day Germany to Georg Händel and Dorothea Taust.

Händel-Haus (2009), birthplace of George Frideric Handel

His father, 63 when George Frideric was born, was an eminent barber-surgeon who worked for the Duke of Saxony. He died when George Frideric was 11.

Handel's baptismal registration (Marienbibliothek in Halle)

His father originally intended George Frideric for the study of the Civil Law and strictly forbade him to meddle with any musical instrument. However,  he practiced music clandestinely, by means of a little clavichord privately conveyed to a room at the top of the house. By the age of seven, George Frideric was a skillful performer on the harpsichord and pipe organ.

During a trip to Weissenfels young George Frideric was lifted onto an organ's stool, where he surprised everyone with his playing. This performance helped convince his father to allow him to take lessons in musical composition and keyboard technique from Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, the organist of Halle's Marienkirche. It was the only formal musical instruction he would ever have.

In 1702, following his late father's wishes, Handel started studying law at the University of Halle.  He only lasted a year before abandoning his studies to become a violinist.


Handel accepted a position in 1703 as violinist and harpsichordist in the orchestra of the Hamburg Oper am Gänsemarkt. Handel learned the rudiments of opera composition while employed there and was able to get Almira and a second opera, Nero, performed there during the temporary absence of the theatre's director, Reinhard Keiser. Almira was successful, Nero less so.

Between 1706-10  Handel traveled around Italy and visited Rome, Venice, Naples and Florence and met many of the greatest Italian composers of the day.

In his earlier years Handel's music was thought to be weak in melody though strong in harmony and interplay of musical strands. His four years in Italy remedied that failing.

Handel first achieved fame in 1709 with his opera Agrippina, which ran for 27 nights successively. The audience, thunderstruck with the grandeur and sublimity of his style, applauded for Il caro Sassone ("the dear Saxon"—referring to Handel's German origins).

In 1710, Handel became Musical Director  to the Elector of Hanover, the future King George I. of England

George Frideric Handel's Rinaldo, the first Italian language opera written specifically for the London stage, premiered on February 24, 1711 at the Queen's Theatre in London's Haymarket. It was a great success with the public, despite negative reactions from literary critics hostile to the trend towards Italian entertainment in English theatres.

In 1712, George, Elector of Hanover, gave  Handel, permission to make a visit to London. There he was received to great acclaim and Handel decided to settle permanently in England. Unfortunately this meant ratting on his contract with George, much to his ex employer's annoyance..

Handel was awarded a yearly income of £200 from Queen Anne after composing for her the Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate, first performed in 1713.

When George was crowned King of England in 1714, great embarrassment ensued for Handel. The new English monarch noting the public acclaim and recognizing his talent, forgave his fellow German for dishonoring his contract, even doubling his pension.

Water Music is a collection of orchestral movements, often considered as three suites, composed by Handel for a boating party for King George I. It premiered in the summer on July 17, 1717 when the king requested a concert on the River Thames. The concert was performed by 50 musicians playing close to the royal barge from which the George I listened with some close friends.

Georg Frideric Handel (left) and King George I on the Thames River, 17 July 1717. Painting by Edouard Hamman 

The king was said to have loved Handel's Water Music so much that he ordered the exhausted musicians to play the suites twice more, before and after supper.

In 1720 Handel was appointed as Master of the orchestra for the Royal Acadamy of Music. He was responsible not only for engaging soloists but also for adapting operas from abroad and for providing possible libretti for his own use,

By the late 1720s he was facing financial ruin when  the Royal Acadamy of Music went bankrupt. Its failure was mainly due to the Prince Of Wales setting up a rival company and taking away Handel's singers and royal patronage.

Whilst working virtually non-stop for 21 days on The Messiah, Handel had no time to eat and he survived almost totally on coffee. He completed his oratorio on September 14, 1742.

The Messiah was first performed at Fishamble Street, Dublin on April 13, 1742, as part of a charity series of concerts that Handel was invited to give by the Lord Lieutenant.

The final bars of the "Hallelujah" chorus, from Handel's manuscript

The Messiah was repeatedly revised by Handel, reaching its most familiar version in the performance to benefit the Foundling Hospital in 1754.

Handel's Messiah was not amongst Queen Victoria's favourite works, she thought it "heavy and tiresome"

Judas Maccabaeus was an oratorio in three acts composed in 1746 by Handel in tribute to Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland's defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden. In the Victorian age this work was as popular as The Messiah.

Music For The Royal Fireworks was written by Handel in 1749 to celebrate the peace of Aix-La-Chapelle, the treaty ending the war of the Austrian succession. Over 12,000 attended its first performance on April 27, 1749 in London's Green Park and London Bridge was jammed solidly for three hours.

The premiere of Music For The Royal Fireworks did not go well. The set was burnt by fireworks and in the ensuing panic, two people died.

Handel's Fireworks Music, A hand-colored etching.

Handel could be crusty and blunt and liable to fly off the handle. For instance when the famous soprano Francesca Cuzzoni refused to sing the song Handel had written for her London debut, he picked her up bodily and threatened to throw her out of the nearby window unless she did as she was told. Cuzzoni sang the song.

In his last years, by now blind, Handel concentrated on organ playing and conducting, with a bit of composing thrown in.


Never married, Handel was a workaholic bachelor who was married to his music.

George Frideric Handel in 1733, by Balthasar Denner (1685–1749)

Apart from music Handel derived much of his enjoyment from his art collection which included works by Rembrandt.

Handel loved his food especially generous helpings of sausages. Once he ordered dinner for two in the local inn. When the food was bought to him, the landlord saw only Handel and commented that he had been led to understand Handel was expecting company. "I am the company" the composer told him, sitting down to work his way through both dinners.

In 1720 Handel moved into 57 Lower Brook Street, Mayfair (now 25 Brook Street and Handel Museum). Handel initially rented the property until he became a British citizen. The composer threw old tickets for concerts from a kiosk there.

In 1726 Handel decided to make London his home permanently, and became a British citizen. The naturalisation of Handel as a British citizen came via an Act of Parliament which required him to enter into communion with the Church of England.

In the 1960s the rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix lived next door for a spell at 23 Brook Street.

Handel was born in the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach and spent his early years in the same area of Germany but they never met.

During a performance of his opera Cleopatra in 1704, Johann Mattheson allowed this friend Handel to take over as conductor for a while. Later in the performance Mattheson wished to resume conducting, but Handel refused to leave the podium. Mattheson immediately challenged Handel to a duel. The performance ceased, and the audience gathered in the street in front of the Hamburg opera house to watch the fight. Mattheson was a skilled swordsman, while Handel was a rank amateur. However, Handel was dressed in a heavy coat featuring large wooden buttons. The point of Mattheson's sword lodged firmly in one of these buttons and remained there until friends separated the composers and sent them on their way.  The pair were afterwards reconciled and remained in correspondence for life.


By the time he had reached his early 40s Handel was suffering great pain from rheumatism. In April 1737, at age 52, Handel suffered a stroke which disabled the use of four fingers on his right hand, preventing him from performing. He returned to Aix-la-Chapelle to take a cure. Seven years later the Prime Minister Walpole announced to the nation that Handel was unable to compose as he had the palsy. However he recovered and went onto compose works such as Judas Maccabaeus.

George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner

By 1753 Handel had gone blind but he continued to compose with the help of his friend John Christopher Smith.

On April 11 1759 Handel collapsed during a performance of The Messiah and died three days later. Some 3,000 people were present at the funeral service at Westminster Abbey. He was buried at Poets corner under a monument that reads: "George Frederic Handel".

Handel died worth £20,000, and left legacies with his charities to nearly £6000.

Handel was one of the first composers to have a biography written of him (1760) and to have a collected edition of his music published (180 parts, 1787-1790)

George Handel was one of history's most prolific composers with 303 hours of music to his name, He is thought to have composed more notes of music than any other composer.

Sources The Book Of Lists 3 by Amy Wallace,, Food For Thought by Ed Pearce

No comments:

Post a Comment