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Composer: Handel, George Frideric (1685-1759)

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Fact file
Year of birth1685
Year of death1759
Portrait of Handel by George Knapton © by kind permission of the Royal Academy of Music
© by kind permission of the Royal Academy of Music

Handel was born in 1685 in the Saxon town of Halle, but he became an English citizen and died in London in 1759. He enjoyed success in several different countries and his musical style ranged accordingly, from Italian opera to the German suite and the English anthem, from the concerto grosso to the royal birthday ode.

A deep interest in opera drew Handel first to Hamburg and then in 1706 to Italy, in order to study the genre at source and thus be able to develop his creative talent. In Venice his Agrippina (1709) was enthusiastically acclaimed, receiving 27 performances before he returned to Germany to become Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover. But opera remained his first love, and it was the chance to renew his involvement with the theatre which soon drew him to London, where his opera Rinaldo was produced in 1711.

From the time Handel settled in England in 1712, his achievement was such that he attained a position of some eminence in the cultural life of the nation. The accession in 1714 of his former employer, the Elector Georg Ludwig of Hanover, to the English throne as George I might have been an embarrassment, had not the King recognised both Handel's genius and the fact that a fellow German-speaker would be useful to him in London society.

As early as 1713, for instance, Handel provided a Birthday Ode for Queen Anne and a Te Deum and Jubilate to celebrate the peace of Utrecht, while ten years later he wrote his impressive set of four Coronation Anthems for the new King George II. One of these, Zadok the Priest, has been performed at every subsequent coronation. Handel's role as 'composer laureate', moreover, continued for the rest of his life.

In 1717 Handel entered the service of James Brydges, soon to be created Duke of Chandos, at his lavish home Cannons at Edgware. There he wrote anthems and dramatic music, such as the oratorio Esther and the pastoral opera Acis and Galatea, both to English words. He also turned to instrumental sonatas and suites, writing trio sonatas and keyboard music of enduring value.

In 1719 a Royal Academy of Music was created by wealthy enthusiasts in order to promote Italian opera. Handel was appointed its musical director and was involved in every aspect of the operation, even traveling to Europe to recruit singers. The next few years were prolific indeed, with operatic masterpieces such as Radamisto, Ottone, Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda, Tamerlano and Admeto. Thanks to Handel London had become the operatic capital of Europe.

In nearly forty operas Handel allowed the structure and virtuosity of opera seria to be moulded into a musical language of truly human dimensions. However, as time passed public support proved fickle and in 1729 the Academy venture collapsed, to be replaced by a new company at Covent Garden, replete with with singers recruited from Italy. There is no question that Handel was the greatest musical cosmopolitan of the day: a German composer, living in London, and writing Italian operas. In these operas there are relatively few ensembles and choruses. Dialogue takes place in lightly accompanied recitatives, but the arias are supremely rich and varied, strongly characterised while offering abundant opportunities for vocal virtuosity. The star singers were highly paid entertainers with international reputations, including castrati such as Caffarelli (real name Gaetano Majorano).

When during the 1730s this type of opera became unfashionable, Handel renewed his career by successfully creating a new genre for performance in the theatre, the oratorio in English on Biblical texts. These oratorios became hugely popular and they also contain some wonderful music. The majority are based on tales from the Old Testament: Samson, Belshazar, Joshua, Solomon and Saul, for example. The most successful has of course been Messiah (1742), which has become a veritable institution in our national life, performed year on year, and much more frequently than the remainder put together. At these oratorio performances, Handel included interval performances of concertos, sometimes featuring himself as organ soloist. His greatest achievement in the field was his set of twelve concerti grossi, Opus 6 (1739), which he composed at the suggestion of his publisher John Walsh. These are among the great instrumental works of the baroque era and, typically, they frequently employ music borrowed from earlier compositions as well as new material.

During the 1750s Handel’s health and eyesight deteriorated, until he went blind. He died on 14th April 1759 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Among contemporary composers his mastery was equalled only by Bach; but in opera he was without peer, the outstanding opera composer during the entire period between Monteverdi and Mozart.

© Terry Barfoot/BBC

Schneider portrait of Handel reproduced by permission of Händel-Haus, Halle. Engraving reproduced by permission of the BBC

List of works
Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, HWV 72Admeto: Chiudetevi miei lumiAdmeto: Orride larveAgrippinaAgrippina, HWV 6: Bel piacereAgrippina: SinfoniaAlcinaAlcina, HWV 34: Ah! mio cor!Alcina, HWV 34: Ah, Ruggiero crudelAlcina, HWV 34: Credete al mio doloreAlcina, HWV 34: Di', cor mio, quanto t'amaiAlcina, HWV 34: Ma quando torneraiAlcina, HWV 34: Mi restano le lagrimeAlcina, HWV 34: Ombre pallideAlcina, HWV 34: Si, son quellaAlcina, HWV 34: Tornami a vagheggiarAlcina, HWV 34: Verdi pratiAlcina, HWV 34: excerptsAlcina, HWV 34: overtureAlexander Balus, HWV 65Alexander Balus, HWV 65: O take me from this hateful lightAmarilli vezzosa (Duello amoroso), HWV 82Apollo e Dafne, HWV 122AriodanteAriodante, HWV33: Dopo notteAriodante, HWV33: Ingrate Polinesso...Neghittosi, or voi che fate?Ariodante, HWV33: OvertureArminio, HWV 36: Quella fiammaAtalanta HWV 35: Non sara pocoBelshazzar: Sacred oracles of truthBerenice, regina d'EgittoCaro autor di mia doglia, HWV 182a,bChaconne in G minor, HWV 486Clori, Tirsi e Fileno, HWV 96Concerto Grosso in A major, Op.6 No.11, HWV 329Concerto Grosso in A minor, Op.6 no.4, HWV 322Concerto Grosso in B flat major, Op.3 No.1, HWV 312Concerto Grosso in B flat major, Op.3 No.2, HWV 313Concerto Grosso in B flat major, Op.6 No.7, HWV 325Concerto Grosso in B minor, Op.6 No.12, HWV 330Concerto Grosso in D major, Op.6 No.5, HWV 323Concerto Grosso in D minor, Op.6 No.10, HWV 328Concerto Grosso in G major, Op.6 no.1, HWV 319Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op.6 no.6, HWV 324Coronation Anthems, HWV 258-61Deborah, HWV 51Dixit Dominus in G minor, HWV 232Esther, HWV 50aEzio, HWV 29: Finche d'un Zeffiro SoaveGiulio Cesare in Egitto, (Julius Caesar in Egypt) HWV 17Giulio Cesare in Egitto, HWV 17: Al lampo dell'armiGiulio Cesare in Egitto, HWV 17: Da tempesteGiulio Cesare in Egitto, HWV 17: Piangerò la sorte miaGiulio Cesare in Egitto, HWV 17: Se in fiorito ameno pratoGiulio Cesare in Egitto, HWV 17: Son nata a lagrimarHarp Concerto in B flat major, HWV 294HerculesHercules, HWV 60: Where shall I fly?Il Delirio Amoroso, (Da quel giorno fatale) HWV 99Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, HWV 46a: AriasIl trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, HWV 46a: Lascia la spinaIl trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, HWV 46a: Tu del ciel ministro elettoIsrael in EgyptIsrael in Egypt, HWV 54: The Lord is a man of warJephthaJephtha, HWV 70: Waft her angelsL'Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato, HWV 55La ResurrezioneLe Train bleuLet thy hand be strengthened; Coronation Anthem No. 4, HWV 259Menuet in G minor, HWV 434.4MessiahMessiah, HWV 56: Hallelujah ChorusMessiah, HWV 56: Part IMessiah, HWV 56: There were shepherdsMessiah, HWV 56: excerptsMy heart is inditing; Coronation Anthem No. 3, HWV 261Oboe Sonata in F major, HWV 363aOde for the Birthday of Queen Anne, HWV 74: Eternal Source of Light DivineOrgan Concerto in D minor, Op.7 no.4, HWV 309Organ Concerto in F major, HWV 305Organ Concerto in F major, Op.4 no.4, HWV 292Organ Concerto in G minor, Op.4 no.1, HWV 289OrlandoOrlando HWV 31:Fammi combattereOrlando, HWV 31: OvertureOuverture in B flat major, HWV 336PartenopeRadamisto, HWV 12: Ombra cara di mia sposaRecorder Sonata in C major, Op.1 no.7, HWV 365Recorder Sonata in D minor, Op.1 no.9a, HWV 367aRiccardo Primo, re d'Inghilterra, HWV 23: Il VoloRinaldoRinaldo, HWV 7: Lascia ch'io piangaRodelinda HWV 19: Io t'abbraccioRodelinda, regina de' LangobardiRoyal Fireworks Music, HWV 351Royal Fireworks Music, HWV 351: OvertureRoyal Fireworks Music, HWV 351: excerptsSaeviat tellus inter rigores, HWV 240Samson, HWV 57: Let the bright SeraphimSaulSemele, HWV 58: O Sleep, why dost thou leave meSerse (Xerxes), HWV 40: Crude furieSerse (Xerxes), HWV 40: Ombra mai fùSilete venti, HWV 242Solomon, HWV 67: Arrival of the Queen of ShebaSolomon, HWV 67: Praise the LordSuite de pièce in B flat major, Vol 2 no. 7, HWV 440Suite de pièce in D minor, Vol 1 no. 3, HWV 428Suite de pièce in E major, Vol 1 no. 5 (aka "The Harmonious Blacksmith" or "Air and Variations in E major"), HWV 430Suite de pièce in F major, Vol 1 no. 2, HWV 427Suite de pièce in G major, Vol 2 no. 2 (aka "Chaconne in G major"), HWV 435Suite for trumpet and strings in D Major, HWV341Suite no. 7 in G minor for violin and viola, HWV 432: PassacagliaTanti strali al sen mi scocchi, HWV 197Te Deum in D major , "Dettingen", HWV 283The King shall rejoice; Coronation Anthem No. 2, HWV 260The Triumph of Time and Truth, HWV 71: Like clouds, stormy winds them impellingTheodoraTheodora, HWV 68: With darkness deepTolomeo, Re d'EgittoTrio Sonata in B flat major, Op.5 no.7, HWV 402Various AriasWater Music, HWV 348-50Water Music, Suite no. 1 in F major, HWV 348Water Music, Suite no. 2 in D major, HWV 349Water Music, Suite no. 3 in G major, HWV 350Zadok the Priest, HWV 258