George Frideric Handel

(1685 - 1759)

German born composer and organsit (naturalized Englishman from 1726). Son of barber-surgeon who opposed music as his son's career though he permitted lessons from Zachow, composer and organist of Liebfrauenkirche, Halle. Handel studied law at Halle University, turning to full-time musician when his father died. He went to Hamburg in 1703 where he joined the opera house under the composer Reinhard Keiser, playing 2nd violin in the orchestra. His first opera Amira, written because Keiser lost interest in the libretto, which Handel took over, was produced there in 1705, being followed by three others. In 1706 Handel went to Italy in a prince's retinue, meeting Corelli, the Scarlattis, and other leading figures, and rapidly attaining mastery of Italian style in opera, chamber music, and vocal music. He was acclaimed as a genius, the rival of his Italian contemporaries. His opera Rodrigo was performed in Florence in 1707 and Agrippina in Venice in 1709. The following year he was appointed court conductor in Hanover and was also invited to write and opera (Rinaldo) for London, where he quickly realized the possibilities for his own success and, after settling his affairs in Hanover, settled there permenately.

For the next 35 years, Handel was immersed in the ups and downs of operatic activity in London where the Italian opera seria was the dominant force. In 1712 he received a pension of 200 pounds a year for life from Queen Anne, this being increased to 600 pounds by King George I, his former ruler in Hanover, for whom in 1717 he composed the famous Water Music suite. From 1717 to 1720 Handel was resident composer to the Earl of Carnarvon (Duke of Chandos from April 1719) at his palace of Cannons in Edgware. The II Chandos Anthems were the chief fruit of his appointment. In 1719 Handel, in association with Giovanni Bononcini and Ariosti, was a music director of the so-called Royal Academy of Music (not a college but a business venture to produce Italian opera). Handel travelled abroad to engage singers and in the 8 years until the academy closed because of lack of support he composed 14 operas, among them Radamisto, Rodelinda, Admeto, and Tolemeo. In 1727, for the coronation of George II, Handel wrote 4 anthems, including Zadok the Priest, wihich has been sung at every British coronation since then.

The success of Gay's The Begger Opera and imitative works was the principle cause of the falling-away of support for Handel's company. He went to Italy to hear operas by composers such as Porpora and Pergolesi and to engage the leading Italian singers. Back in London in partnership with Heidegger at the King's Theatre, Handel wrote Lotario (1729), Partenope (1730), and Orlando (1733). In 1734 he moved to the new Covent Garden Royal Opera House, for which he wrote two of his greatest operas, Ariodante (produced January 1735) and Alcina (produced April 1735), but he recognized that the popularity of Italian opera was declining and began, somewhat unwillingly, to develop the genre of dramatic oratorios which is perhaps his most original contribution to the art of music. Esther (1732 in revised form) and Acis and Galatea are typical examples. Ironically, released from the conventions of opera seria, Handel's dramatic gifts found wider and more expressive outlets in the oratorio form. Scores contain stage directions and the use of choirs and orchestras became more dramatic and rich. He conducted several oratorio performances in London 1735, playing his own organ concertos and entr'actes. Nevertheless he continued to write operas and between 1737 and 1740 composed Berenice, Serse, Imeneo, and Deidamia.

In 1737, Handel's health cracked under the strain of his operatic labours and he had a stroke. Following his recovery, he wrote a series of oratorios, including Messiah, produced Dublin, 1742. By this work his name is known throughout the world, yet it is something of an oddity in Handel's work since he was not a religious composer in the accepted sense. But its power, lyricism, sincerity, and profundity make it one of the supreme musical creations as well as an oustanding example of devotional art. It was followed by Samson, Judas Maccabaeus, and Solomon. The success of these works made Handel the idol of England, and that popularity dominated English music for nearly 150 years after his death. Not until Handel's operas were revived in Germany in the 1920s was the perspective corrected and the importance of that branch of his art restored. Superb as are Handel's instrumental compositions such as the concerti grossi, sonatas, and suites, it is in the operas and oratorios that the nobility, expressiveness, invention, and captivation of his art are found at their highest degree of development. He did not revolutionize operatic form but he brought the novelty of his genius to the genre as he found it. The scene-painting and illustrative qualities of his orchestration are remarkable even at a period when naive and realistic effects were common currency.

For the last seven years of his life Handel was blind, but he continued to conduct oratorio performances and to revise his scores with the assistance of his devoted friend John Christopher Smith. His works were published by the German Handel Gesellschaft in a complete edition (1859-1894) of 100 volumes, edited by Chrysander, and a new edition, the Hallische Handel-Ausgabe, is in progress. Principle compositions:

Operas: Hamburg: Almira, Nero (lost), (both 1705), Florindo e Dafne (lost) (1707); Florence: Rodrigo (1707); Venice: Agrippina (1709); London: Rinaldo (1711), Il pastor fido (1712; second version with ballet Terpsicore, 1734); Teseo (1712); Silla (1714); Amadigi di Gaula (1715); Radamisto (1720); Muzio Scevola, Floridante (both 1721); Ottone (1722); Flavio (1723); Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Tamerlano (both 1724); Rodelinda, regina de'Longobardi (1725); Scipione, Alessandro (both 1726); Admeto, Riccardo I (both 1727); Siroe, Tolomeo (both 1728); Lotario (1729); Partenope (1730); Poro (1731); Ezio, Sosarme (both 1732); Orlando (1733); Arianna (1734); Ariodante, Alcina (both 1735); Atalanta (1736); Arminio, Giustino, Berenice (all 1737); Faramondo, Serse (both 1738); Imeneo (1740); Deidamia (1740).

Orchestrations: Water Music (c. 1717); Music for Royal Fireworks (1749).

Dramatic Oratorios: Rome: La Resurrezione, Trionfo del Tempo (1708); Naples: Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (1709); Hamburg: Der fur die Suende der Welt gemartete und sterbende Jesus (Brockes Passion) (?1716); London: Haman and Mordecai (masque 1720, later revised as Esther 1732); Acis and Galatea (1718; revised 1732 incorporating part of 1709 work, and 1743); Deborah (1733); Athalia (1733) Alexander's Feast (1736); Saul, Israel in Egypt, Ode for St. Cecilia's Day (1739); L'Allegro, il Pensieroso ed il Moderato (1740); Messiah (1741); Samson, Joseph (1743); Semele, Belshazzar, Hercules (1744); Occasional Oratorio, Judas Maccabaeus (1746); Alexander Balus, Joshua (1747); Solomon, Susanna (1748); Teodra, Alceste (1749); Choice of Hercules (1750); Jephtha (1752); Triumph of Time and Truth (1757).

Cantatas and Chamber Duets: Handel composed 100 of the former and 20 of the latter. Among the best known are Silete Vente, soprano, instruments (1729); La terra e liberata (Apollo e Dafne), soprano, instruments (c. 1708); and O numi eterni (La Lucrezia), soprano, continuo (1709).

Church Music: Gloria Patri (1707) Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate (1712-13); Dettingen Te Deum (1743); II Chandos Anthems (1717-18); four Coronation Anthems (1727: The King Shall Rejoice; Let thy hand be strengthened: My heart is inditing: Zadok the Priest); The Ways of Zion do Mourn, funeral anthem for Queen Caroline (1737).

Vocal: Birthday Ode for Queen Anne (1713); nine German Arias (1729).

Instrumental and Chamber Music: 6 Concerti Grossi, strings, woodwind, continuo, Opus 3 (1734); 12 Concerti Grossi, strings, optional wind, Opus 6 (1739); 5 Concerti, orchestra (1741); 6 organ concerti, Opus 4 (1738); 6 organ concerti, Opus 7 (1760); 6 organ concerti (1740); 15 chamber sonatas (flutes, recorders), Opus 1 (1724); 3 concerti a due cori; 2 oboe sonatas; 12 flute sonatas; 6 trio sonatas; 9 trio sonatas, Opus 2 (1722-33); 7 trio sonatas, Opus 5 (1739); viola da gamba sonata; 8 suites de pieces, harpsichord (1720); 8 suites de pieces (1733, these include the well-known Chaconne in G); 6 Fugues (1736).

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