George Frideric Handel was born in Germany as Georg Friedrich Händel in Halle an der Saale in 1685 and died in London in 1759. Before moving to England in 1711, he had lived in Hamburg, Italy and Hanover, where he was kappelmeister to the Elector. Today, his musical life and legacy is celebrated by three substantial festivals in his native country, one in his birth town Halle, another in the town of Göttingen whose celebrated university was founded by the Elector of Hanover (who also happened to be George II of England) and one in the modern industrial town of Karlsruhe, which has no particular claim on Handel at all.

William Berger in the title role of <i>Imeneo</i>, Göttingen © Theodoro da Silva
William Berger in the title role of Imeneo, Göttingen
© Theodoro da Silva

The most venerable of these is the Internationale Händel-Festspiele Göttingen, which began in 1920 and has continued almost every year since. While some of Handel’s works have continued in performance since his lifetime – Messiah, Israel in Europe, the Water Music and the Music for the Royal Fireworks amongst them – his operas had fallen into almost complete disuse after their performances during his lifetime. The performance of Rodelinda for the first time in nearly 300 years opened the door to the Handel opera revival which now sees regularly performances of Handel’s operas on the world’s lyric stages.

FestspielOrchester Göttingen © Internationale Händel Festspiele Göttingen
FestspielOrchester Göttingen
© Internationale Händel Festspiele Göttingen

The central part of this small town (population about 118,000) is nestled within the remnant of its mediaeval wall, as are most of the Festival venues. These include the early 19th century Deutschestheater, wherein the Festival opera is usually staged. These oscillate between baroque-style productions and more modern Konzept opera, and the audience seems to be divided in its opinion as to which it prefers. Two recent productions in thorough 18th century style, Amadigi di Galla (2012) and Imeneo (2016), both directed by Sigrid T’Hooft, were particularly well-received, but more modern stagings of Faramondo (2014) and Agrippina (2015) also drew critical and popular acclaim. The Göttingen festival usually features at least one oratorio and often more, and last year also hosted a concert performance of the rarity Berenice. These are often heard in the Stadthalle, not a pretty sight from the outside, but comfortable and with good acoustics inside. One of the most delightful venues is the university Aula, built in 1837, which hosts many solo recitals and chamber concerts. One of the delights of the Göttingen festival is the playing of its resident orchestra, the FestspielOrchester Göttingen, misleadingly nicknamed the FOG.

Händel-Haus, Halle © Thomas Ziegler
Händel-Haus, Halle
© Thomas Ziegler

The Händel-Festspiele Halle began in 1922, a couple of years later than Göttingen, featuring Semele, Susanna and an arrangement of Orlando. It was more intermittent in its early years, and only consolidated as an annual event in 1952. The city itself (home to about 230,000 souls) has much to interest the dedicated Handelian, including the house where Handel grew up – Händel-Haus – now a museum and bureaucratic centre of the Festival. It also houses the offices of the HHA (Hallische Händel-Ausgabe) which publishes modern edited scores of Handel’s works, and an annual scholarly journal, the Händel-Jahrbuch, with articles in English as well as German. The collaboration between HHA and the Festival also produces a scholarly symposium in conjunction with the Festival, with papers also in both German and English. Händel-Haus also surrounds a lovely courtyard, where drinks and food may be purchased, and attached to this is an atmospheric cellar.

Marktkirche, Halle © Thomas Ziegler
Marktkirche, Halle
© Thomas Ziegler

The Handel Festival Halle is the largest of its kind, and every year presents three or more operas. In co-operation with the local Halle opera company, every year there is a new production, and the one from the previous year is also performed, in the modern Handel Opera House. These productions are almost invariably modern, with some of them, according to some operagoers, encompassing the worst excesses of Regietheater, but musical values are always high. Other productions, usually one or more operas or staged oratorios, may be seen in the Goethestheater (built in 1802) at the spa town of Bad Lauchstädt, a half-hour bus ride from the city centre. Here one may purchase drinks and snacks in the grounds, or do so across the road in the charming spa gardens. Other venues include the Marktkirche, where Handel played the organ as a boy, and the Reform Cathedral, where at 17 he was the organist. Concerts also take place in the Georg Friedrich Händel Hall, and the more modest repurposed Ulrichskirche, both offering rather better acoustics than the older, if more atmospheric, venues.

Oper Halle © Thomas Ziegler
Oper Halle
© Thomas Ziegler

The youngest German International Handel Festival has been held at Karlsruhe, a mostly modern industrial city (population over 300,000), formally described as the Internationale Händel-Festspiele Karlsruhe since 1985, although Handel operas have been regularly produced there since the late 1970s. The Festival has recently come under the direction of Moscow-born Michael Fichtenholz, who wishes to raise its profile, particularly as an international event. To this end, it is to date the only German Handel festival that presents its (usually Italian language) operas with both German and English surtitles. It also boasts a modern opera house, not so beauteous on the outside, but with a large stage and all mod cons. Other venues include the Schlossgesaue, a reconstructed Renaissance palace, and the Christuskirche am Mühlburger Tor, a Protestant church from the turn of the 20th century. There are usually two full Handel operas performed at each Festival, and, as with Halle, one is a new production and another is carried over from the year before. There are many small concerts, with recitals from the leading lights of the Baroque.

Karlsruhe Handel Festival
Karlsruhe Handel Festival

In most years, it is possible to get the best of all three Handel Festivals, if you have the resources. The Karlsruhe Festival takes place in February, a little daunting weatherwise for those of us from warmer climes. Göttingen nearly always enjoys the arrival of summer during its Handel Festival, and tourists and residents alike enjoy the many outdoor cafes, particularly in the main square presided over by the old Rathaus and featuring the famous Gänseliesel fountain. Halle is unpredictable – sometimes it swelters in over 30ºC heat, which can be somewhat distracting in the Goethestheater with its pressed metal ceiling and lack of air-conditioning, while at other times one feels winter has returned! All three towns have historical attractions both near and further-flung, with Halle of course boasting the most associations with the composer himself. All three festivals can be recommended for their ample offerings of music by Handel and other baroque composers, sung and played to the highest standard by international artists ranging from the most promising early career performers to the well-established household names of the Baroque world.