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Classical Composers A-Z: George Frederick Handel

Peter Wintersgill presents a “pocket’’ biography of George Frederick Handel, the prolific composer whose works included the timeless, immensely famous oratorio Messiah,

23rd February, 1685, in Halle.

George, barber-surgeon.

Dorothea, pastor's daughter, father's second wife.

Sister Dorothea Sophia, married Michael Michaelson, local government official.

Father rather grim and dour, did not approve of music as a career. Was persuaded by his dukal employer to let his son have music lessons. He had them from Zachow, the Halle organist, in composition, organ, violin and harpsichord. At one stage mother helped him smuggle a clavichord into the attic, but this was soon found and banned by father, who died when Handel was 12.

Out of a strong sense of duty he obeyed father's wishes and entered Halle University to study law at 17. He became organist at the Calvinist church there, though he was a Lutheran. He moved to Hamburg a year later, where he played the violin at the local opera house. He also gave music lessons, one of his pupils being the daughter of the English resident, Sir John Wyche, whose secretary, Johann Mattheson, became a life long friend. On one occasion they quarrelled, which led to a duel. Fortunately Mattheson's sword caught Handel's coat button and neither party was injured. Both of them applied for the post of organist at Lubeck to succeed Buxtehude. However the prospect of marrying his elderly ugly daughter put them both off. He wrote his first opera Almira in 1705 and left for Italy a year later.

Everybody who was somebody in music had to visit Italy at some stage, and Handel was no exception. He travelled to all the big towns, Florence, Milan, Venice, Naples and Rome, meeting nobles, cardinals and many musicians, including the Scarlattis, Corelli, Vivaldi and Albinoni. This Italian style was bound to affect his own music, e.g. the Concerto a due chori. His own operas in the Italian style included Rodrigo (1707) and Aggripina (1710), sacred works included Dixit Dominus, Laudati Pueri, Nisi Dominus and the oratorio La Resurrexione (1708).

Italy was the home of oratorio, being music sung in oratories. Handel was the founder of the English Oratorio, usually with O.T. plots and English words and marked use of the chorus. It differed from opera in having no costume, no scenery and no action. Before leaving Italy he met the Duke of Manchester, the English ambassador to Venice, and Prince Ernst of Hanover, both of whom invited him to visit their respective countries. He went straight to Hanover in 1710 and was appointed Kapelmeister to the Elector, Prince George Ludwig, brother of Prince Ernst. On his arrival there he was given one year's immediate leave to visit London, which he did.

He arrived in London in 1710 and produced his first opera there, Rinaldo, in 1711 to an Italian text. It was a great success. He never, apart from brief trips abroad to find singers, left England again. He took up residence with the young Lord Burlington in Piccadilly, later acquiring his own house in Brook Street.

He returned briefly to Germany for the christening of his niece Johanna Frederica (also his god-daughter). He also saw Zachow and his ageing mother.

In 1714 Queen Anne died having no living children, and in order to ensure the protestant succession, George Ludwig, Elector of Hanover and Handel's old employer, was invited to England as George I. When the King came to England he left his wife behind, but brought with him two mistresses, one very large called the elephant and one very tall called the giraffe. The old story that Handel wrote the Water Music to placate the King is now discounted. It was certainly played on the Thames to the King in 1717.

The King, who never learnt English, disliked England and everything to do with it - the climate, the food and the beer. He therefore took every opportunity of returning to Hanover. Handel went along too and visited his family and an old friend, Johann Christoff Schmidt, now out of work. He brought him and his son hack to England with him, where they both - as John Christopher Smith - served Handel as secretary and general factotum till his death.

From 1717-1720 Handel worked as Court Composer to James Bridges, later Duke of Chandos, at his palatial home, Cannons, Edgware in Middlesex. While there he wrote the 12 Chandos Anthems, virtually small cantatas, some of which contain miniature hallelujah choruses. He also wrote Acis and Galatea, 1718, a frivolous little piece about nymphs and shepherds, which includes the well known aria 'Oh ruddier than the cherry', which some wag turned into 'Oh ruddier than the clergy'. However his most significant work of this period was the opera Haman and Mordecai, which eventually became his first oratorio Esther.

Early Adult Life
In 1719 he again visited Germany to engage singers for his operas, among whom were several castratos. While there he again visited his family and found that his sister Dorothea had died. Bach heard that he was at Halle and walked from Cothen to meet him, but arrived one day too late.

When Handel returned in 1729, he helped to form the Royal Academy of Music. This bears no relation to the present R.A.M., but was a business venture to back his operas. In 1723 he was appointed Composer to the Chapel Royal and moved into his house in Brook Street. In 1726 he successfully applied for naturalisation. In 1727 he wrote the four Coronation Anthems for the coronation for George II, who succeeded his father, the best known of these, Zadok the Priest, has been sung at every coronation since. He also wrote 'occasional' pieces, e.g. a Te Deum and Jubilate for the Peace of Utrecht (1713), which gave us Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and St. Kitts, also a Te Deum to celebrate the Battle of Dettingen (1743), at which George II was the last English King to lead his troops into battle, an anthem for the Prince of Wales' Wedding, and the Fireworks Music (1749) for the peace of Aix-la Chapelle, which ended the War of the Austrian Succession . He also wrote the Occasional Oratorio to celebrate the victory of the Duke of Cumberland at the Battle of Culloden.

Social Life and Health
Handel was a social being, an extravert in modern parlance, who liked his fellow men. He used to meet them at the coffee houses which were so popular at the time. Among his friends were Garrick, Hogarth and Pope. A popular venue was the home of Thomas Britten, a coal merchant, where they had concerts. Although Handel never married, he liked the company of women. One of his favourites was Mrs Sussanah Cibber, sister of Thomas Arne, an actress and a fine contralto. She sang solos in Messiah and other works.

Mary Granville, later Mrs Delany, knew Handel when she was a child and in her old age used to tell many stories about him. He was a moody man, by turns explosive and sunny, but always generous, especially to charities. He was a favourite at court, both with George I and George II, though less so with the Prince of Wales, who disapproved on principle of anyone or anything his father liked. He did however approve of the Wedding Anthem Handel wrote for him in 1736. Incidentally he was the only Prince of Wales who never became King, he died before his father.

Like many of his contemporaries Handel enjoyed his food, and also his drink. His health was interrupted from time to time by bouts of depression with or without rheumatic pains. These often followed periods of financial trouble. One such bout in 1735 sent him to take waters at Tunbridge Wells. The next time in 1773 he went to Aix-la-Chapelle, though this time he had a stroke as well. In 1743 he had another stroke, affecting his speech and loss of his senses as well. In 1751 he developed cataracts, for which he had three operations, losing his sight completely after the last one.

Major Oratorios
His friend Charles Jennens was perhaps his best known librettist. A vain and pompous country squire, but a fine amateur writer, Jennens sent his first script, Saul, in 1739, followed by L'Allegro et il Pensoroso in 1740, Messiah in 1741 and Belshazzar in 1745. Most of his oratorios were based on Old Testament heroes, e.g. Samson, (1743), Solomon, Joshua and Judas Maccabeus. In opera the soloists were all important, the plot trivial and there were few choruses. In Handel's oratorios the choruses were all important, the plot very definite and the soloists subsidiary. Mind you there were some secular oratorios, e.g. Semele, Alexander's Feast and the Ode to St. Cecilia. Most of the libretti for his later works were by Rev. Thomas Morrell, e.g. Joshua (1747), Theodora (1749) and Jephtha (171). Theodora, apart from Messiah, was the only real Christian oratorio.

I have left this till the last because it is unique. It contains no human characters and no plot - the choruses representing the Christian believers, commenting on the biblical text. The libretto arrived one day in 1741 when Handel's health and fortunes were both at a low ebb. He was inspired by this, finishing it in 24 days, often going without food and sleep in the process. He borrowed from his own works; thus four choruses are taken from his chamber duets.

In the autumn an invitation arrived from the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland to visit Dublin for a three month season. After several other works, Messiah was finally produced on 14th April, 1742, before a large and distinguished audience. The ladies were asked to come without their hoops and the gentlemen without their swords, to get as many in as possible. It was a great success, all profits going to the hospitals and prisons of Dublin. Jennens commented later, "Handel has made a very fine entertainment of it, though not so good as he might and ought to have done."

It is interesting to compare the forces used by Handel with the traditional chorus and orchestra of today. His choir of 30 came from the two cathedrals of Dublin, his own orchestra, also 30 strong; he had seven soloists, a small portable organ and a harpsichord from which he conducted. Among the numbers usually omitted is the S/T duet "Oh Death Where is Thy Sting?. Some of the arias were sung by different voices, e.g. But Who May Abide? was sung by an alto.

The London premiere was a flop, the audience didn't approve of a sacred work being performed in a theatre. It wasn't till the first annual performance in the Foundling Hospital in 1750 that London was ready for it.

What is so unique about Messiah, that it caught on so in Britain? It is timeless, universal, non-denominational; the person of the Saviour never appears. Perhaps the answer is to be found in the quotation from Paul's first Epistle to Timothy: "And without controversy great is the mystery of Godliness; God manifested in the flesh, justified by the spirit, seen of angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory, in Whom we laid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge."

After Jephta Handel's health declined, and he aged considerably. He lay in bed all Holy Week after collapsing at a concert, and finally died at his house on Brook Street on Good Friday, April 13th, 1759, aged 74, from a stroke. His funeral on 20th April was attended by 3,000 people, and he was buried at his own request in Westminster Abbey. The music was sung by the combined choirs of the Abbey, St. Paul's and the Chapel Royal.


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