GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL
(1685-1759)


George Frideric Handel, considered one of the greatest composers of the baroque period, was born in Halle, Germany, on Feb. 23, 1685. He died in London on Apr. 14, 1759, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. In his later years he preferred the anglicized form of his name (as used here) rather than the original form, Georg Friedrich Handel. Handel is best known for his English ORATORIOS, particularly the Messiah.

At the age of 12, Handel became the assistant organist at the cathedral of Halle, where the principal organist was his teacher, the excellent composer Friedrich Wilhelm Zachau (1663- 1712). In 1703, Handel moved to Hamburg, one of the principal musical centers of Germany. There he played violin in the opera orchestra, directed by the eminent composer Reinhard Keiser. Handel composed two operas for the Hamburg theater, Almira (1705) and Nero (1705).

About 1706, Handel went to Italy, where he remained until 1710. His Italian travels took him to Florence, Venice, Rome, and Naples. Among the works that he composed for some of the most important patrons of those cities are his first two oratorios, Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (1707, later rev. and trans. as The Triumph of Time and Truth) and La Resurrezione (1708), and the opera Agrippina (1709). These works reveal Handel's growing mastery of Italian style.

In 1710, Handel returned to Germany and became musical director to the elector of Hanover. Late in the same year he visited England, where his opera Rinaldo was performed with great success. After another brief stay in Hanover, Handel received a leave of absence to return to London. In 1714 his former Hanover employer became King George I of England, and the new king bestowed special favors on Handel, who made London his permanent home and, in 1727, became an English citizen.

In England Handel continued to compose in the Italian style, but he also absorbed the characteristics of English music, especially English choral music. As musical director of the Royal Academy of Music from 1719 to 1728 and of the so-called Second Academy from 1728 to 1734--both organizations for the performance of Italian opera--Handel became London's leading composer and director of Italian operas. In fact, he was among the most important opera composers of the baroque period. Most of the texts of his approximately 40 operas are based on stories about heroic historical figures, but some are fantasies with magical scenes, and others are light "antiheroic" works. Musically, Handel's operas are outstanding for their imaginative use of the conventions of serious opera. A number of his operas have been recently revived, among them Giulio Cesare (1724), Tamerlano (1724), Orlando (1733), Alcina (1735), and Serse (1738).

Today Handel is far better known as a composer of English oratorios than of Italian operas. Of his 17 English oratorios, the earliest date from the period in which he was still composing Italian operas: Esther (1718; rev. 1732), Deborah (1733), Athalia (1733), Saul (1738), and Israel in Egypt (1738). From 1740 on, however, he abandoned Italian opera and concentrated on English oratorio. From this later period dates Messiah (1741), the most influential and widely performed oratorio of all time. Among his other outstanding oratorios of this period are Samson (1741), Belshazzar (1744), Solomon (1748), Theodora (1749), and Jephtha (1751). Mostly based on Old Testament stories, Handel's oratorios are three-act dramatic works, somewhat like operas but performed in concert, without staging or action. They are unusual in their prominent use of the chorus.

A prolific composer in many genres, Handel is well known for his outstanding contributions to English church music, secular vocal music, and instrumental music of various types, particularly the concerto.


Bibliography: Burrows, D., Handel (1995); Davison, A. T., Bach and Handel (1951; repr. 1986); Dean, W., Handel's Dramatic Oratorios and Masques (1969; repr. 1990); Dean, W., and Knapp, J., Handel's Operas (1987); Harris, E. T., Handel and the Pastoral Tradition (1980); Hogwood, Christopher, Handel (1988); Keats, J., Handel: The Man and His Music (1985); Landon, H. C., Handel and His World (1984); Meynell, H., The Art of Handel's Operas (1986); Simon, J., ed., Handel: A Celebration of His Life and Times (1987).

 


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