George Frideric Handel

(23 February 1685 - 14 April 1759)

George Friederic Handel was one of the greatest composers of his age, most famous for his Messiah. He contributed to every genre that existed in his lifetime, both vocal and instrumental. His compositions include 42 operas, 29 oratorios, more than 120 cantatas, trios, duos, various arias, chamber music, 16 organ concertos and many other sacred works. In his early career, he dedicated much of his expertise to opera, mainly Italian librettos, while in his later career he focused on large-scale vocal works, finding his niche in oratorio.

Handel was born in Halle to a barber-surgeon and a pastor’s daughter. His father disapproved of his love of music and tried to convince his son to study law instead. Handel played clavichord and organ secretly but was eventually allowed to study under Friedtich Zachow, organist at the Liebfrauenkirche in harpsichord, organ and composition.

In 1702, five years after the death of his father, the young Handel was appointed organist of the Calvinist Domkirche, but left Halle the following year to seek out the opera scene across Europe, beginning in Hamburg. Handel composed his first operas Almira and Nero in Hamburg while he was employed as second violinist and harpsichordist at the Hamburg opera house, one of the only opera establishments outside of the courts in that region.

Handel understands effect better than any of us - when he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.

Handel travelled to Italy in 1706, where he was commissioned to compose the large-scale setting of the psalm Dixit Dominus and two other Vesper psalms, Laudate pueri and Nisi Dominus, which were performed during services for the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on the 15-16 July 1707. Rodrigo, his first all-Italian opera was produced in Florence in 1707 and another of his operas, Agrippina was first produced in 1709 and ran for 27 consecutive nights, the audience enamoured with the grandeur and finesse of his opera style.

His first church compositions were the Te deum and Jubliate to celebrate the Treaty of Utrecht. For Handel’s secular oratorios, he often turned to mythology , such as Acis and Galatea, Hercules and Semele.

I should be sorry if I only entertained them, I wish to make them better.

Italian-style opera had gained popularity in London since its introduction there in 1705 and Handel found great success with his opera Rinaldo, which contains one of Handel’s favourite arias, Cara sposa, amante cara. In 1712 he decided to settle permanently in London, buying a house in Mayfair in the following decade, and finally becoming a naturalised British subject in 1727.

The Duke of Chandos became a notable patron of Handel and his new opera company, the Royal Academy of Music. The academy was established to support, promote and produce Italian opera in London. As well as opera, Handel found time for other genres during his time in London in the 1720s. Under an honorary title granted to him by the royal family, he composed music for the Chapel Royal, and the death of George I gave him a rare opportunity to compose ceremonial music for the funeral as well as anthems of colossal splendour for the coronation of his successor George II – this music was composed for instruments and voices on a massed scale unmatched by what was available to him in the opera house. One of the anthems, Zadok the Priest, has been sung at every British coronation ever since, as well as being used widely in film and television and as the UEFA Champions League Anthem. It is written for large choir and orchestra and is introduced with a static figure of soft string textures, followed by a sudden majestic forte tutti entrance with choir and three trumpets.

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In 1741, Handel went to Dublin, on the invitation of the Duke of Devonshire, to give benefit concerts to fundraise for local hospitals. The Messiah, his most famous work, was premiered in the New Music Hall on Dublin’s Fishamble Street on the 13th of April 1742. Back in London, Handel also performed the Messiah in order to raise funds for the Foundling Hospital, which was such a success that it became an annual event and he later bequeathed a copy of the Messiah to the hospital upon his death. Handel was also known to be charitable towards impoverished musicians and their families, for whom he set up the ‘Society for the Support of Decay’d Musicians’ in 1738.

Handel wrote his Music for the Royal Fireworks in 1748, the most massive of his orchestral works, and 12,000 people attended its premiere. Handel writes for three horns and three trumpets, for maximum sonority. It is a majestic work which makes use of the French form, with dotted figures in a hymn-like melody and followed by triumphant brass fanfares.

In his final years, he lost his sight, which was a severe impediment to composing and performing. He was nevertheless still able to oversee the production of his oratorio performance projects during which he improvised on the organ. He died on the 14th of April 1759 and buried in a royal manner at Westminster Abbey.

Handel was the Jupiter of music;... his hallelujahs open the heavens.

Johann Sebastian Bach

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