George Frideric Handel (February 23, 1685 – April 14, 1759) was a German/British Baroque composer who was a leading composer of concerti grossi, operas and oratorios. Born in Germany as Georg Friedrich Händel (IPA: [ˈhɛndəl]), he lived most of his adult life in England, becoming a subject of the British crown in 1727. His most famous piece is Messiah, an oratorio set to texts from the King James Bible; other well-known works are Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks. He deeply influenced many of the composers who came after him, including Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and his work helped lead the transition from the Baroque to the Classical era.
Handel was born at Halle in Saxony in 1685, the same year that both Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti were born. He displayed considerable musical talent at an early age; by the age of seven he was a skilful performer on the harpsichord and organ, and at nine he began to compose music. However, his father, a barber-surgeon to the court of Saxe-Weissenfels, was opposed to George Frideric pursuing a musical career, preferring him to study law. Nevertheless, the young Handel was permitted to take lessons in musical composition and keyboard techniques from Friedrich Wilhelm Zachau, the organist of the Liebfrauenkirche, Halle.
In 1702, in obedience to his father's wishes, he began the study of law at the University of Halle, but after his father's death the following year, he abandoned law for music, becoming the organist at the Calvinist Cathedral. The following year he moved to Hamburg, accepting a position as violinist in the orchestra of the opera-house at Hamburg. Here his first two operas, Almira and Nero, were produced early in 1705. Two other early operas, Daphne and Florindo, were produced at Hamburg in 1708. During the years 1707-1709 Handel traveled and studied in Italy. When opera was banned by local authorities, Handel found work as a composer of sacred music and wrote some pieces in operatic style. The famous Dixit Dominus (1707) is from this era. His Rodrigo was produced in Florence in 1707, and his Agrippina at Venice in 1708. Two oratorios, La Resurrezione and Il Trionfo del Tempo, were produced at Rome in 1709 and 1710, respectively.
In 1710 Handel became Kapellmeister to George, Elector of Hanover, who would soon be George I of Great Britain. He visited London in 1710 and settled there permanently in 1712, receiving a yearly income of £200 from Queen Anne. In 1726 Handel's opera Scipio (Scipione) was performed for the first time, the march from which remains the regimental slow march of the British Grenadier Guards. He was naturalised a British subject in the same year.
In 1727 Handel was commissioned to write four anthems for the coronation ceremony of King George II. One of these, Zadok the Priest, has been played at every coronation ceremony since. Handel was director of the Royal Academy of Music 1720-1728, and a partner of J. J. Heidegger in the management of the King's Theatre 1729-1734. Handel also had a long association with the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, where many of his Italian operas were premiered. Handel gave up operatic management entirely in 1740, after he had lost a fortune in the business.
In April 1737, aged 52, he suffered a stroke or other injury which left his right arm temporarily paralysed and stopped him from performing. He also complained that he had trouble focusing after the event.
In August, 1750, on a journey back from Germany to London, Handel was seriously injured in a carriage accident between The Hague and Haarlem in the Netherlands.
In 1751 he started turning blind, and by age 65 was completely blind in one eye. The cause was unknown and progressed into his other eye as well. He died some eight years later in London, his last attended performance being his own Messiah. He had more than 3,000 mourners attending at his funeral — which was given full state honours — and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Handel never married, and kept his personal life very private. He left a sizable estate to a niece in Germany, as well as leaving gifts to his other relations, servants, friends and favourite charities.
Handel's compositions include some fifty operas, twenty-three oratorios, and a large amount of church music, as well as instrumental pieces, such as the organ concerti of which there are sixteen, including the most famous, known as "The Cuckoo and the Nightingale", in which the birds can be heard calling back and forth to each other during passages played in different keys representing the vocal ranges of each of the two birds, the Opus 3 and 6 Concerti Grossi, the Water Music, and the Fireworks Music.
After his death, Handel's Italian operas fell into obscurity, save the odd fragment, such as the ubiquitous aria from Serse, "Ombra mai fu"; his reputation throughout the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, particularly in the anglophone countries, rested primarily on his English oratorios, which were customarily performed by enormous choruses of amateur singers on solemn occasions. These include Esther (1718); Athalia (1733); Saul (1739); Israel in Egypt (1739); Messiah (1742); Samson (1743); Judas Maccabaeus (1747); Solomon (1748), and Jephtha (1752).
Since the 1960s, with the revival of interest in baroque music and original instrument playing styles, interest has revived in Handel's Italian operas, and many have been recorded and performed onstage. Of the fifty he wrote between 1705 and 1738, Alcina (1735), Ariodante (1735), Orlando (1733), Rinaldo (1711, 1731), and Serse (also known as Xerxes) (1738) stand out and are now performed regularly in opera houses and concert halls. Arguably the finest, however, are Giulio Cesare (1724) and Rodelinda (1725), which, thanks to their superb orchestral and vocal writing, have entered the mainstream opera repertoire.
Also revived in recent years are a number of secular cantatas and what one might call secular oratorios or concert operas, Of the former, Ode for St. Cecilia's Day (1739) (set to texts of John Dryden) and Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne (1713) are particularly noteworthy. For his secular oratorios, Handel turned to classical mythology for subjects, producing such works as Acis and Galatea (1719) Hercules (1745), and Semele (1744). In terms of musical style, particularly in the vocal writing for the English-language texts, these works have close kinship with the above-mentioned sacred oratorios, but they also share something of the lyrical and dramatic qualities of Handel's Italian operas. As such, they are sometimes performed onstage by small chamber ensembles. With the rediscovery of his theatrical works, Handel, in addition to his renown as instrumentalist, orchestral writer, and melodist, is now perceived as being one of opera's great musical dramatists.
Handel adopted the spelling "George Frideric Handel" on his naturalization as a British citizen. His name is spelled "Händel" in Germany and elsewhere, and "Haendel" in France, which causes no small grief to cataloguers everywhere. There was another composer with a similar name, Handl, who was a Slovene (without umlaut; so not Händel). He was usually known as Jacobus Gallus.
Handel's works were edited by S. Arnold (40 vols., London, 1786), and by F. Chrysander, for the German Händel-Gesellschaft (100 vols., Leipzig, 1859–1894).
Handel lived at 25 Brook Street, London from 1723 until his death in 1759, now commemorated by a blue plaque on the outside of the building. It was here that he composed Messiah, Zadok the Priest, and Fireworks Music. In 2000, the upper stories of 25 Brook Street were leased to the Handel House Trust, and, after an extensive restoration program, the Handel House Museum opened to the public on 8 November 2001. Next door at 23 Brook Street is another blue plaque for a more modern musician, Jimi Hendrix.
Messiah was first performed in New Musick Hall in Fishamble Street,Dublin on 13 April, 1742, with 26 boys and five men from the combined choirs of St Patrick's and Christ Church cathedrals participating.
This article includes content derived from the public domain Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1914.
See List of compositions by George Frideric Handel — text availability in listing & additional ones in "Texts — Other" category.