George Frideric Handel's Messiah was originally an Easter offering. It burst onto the stage of Musick Hall in Dublin on April 13, 1742. The audience swelled to a record 700, as ladies had heeded pleas by management to wear dresses "without Hoops" in order to make "Room for more company." Handel's superstar status was not the only draw; many also came to glimpse the contralto, Susannah Cibber, then embroiled in a scandalous divorce.
The men and women in attendance sat mesmerized from the moment the tenor followed the mournful string overture with his piercing opening line: "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God." Soloists alternated with wave upon wave of chorus, until, near the midway point, Cibber intoned: "He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." So moved was the Rev. Patrick Delany that he leapt to his feet and cried out: "Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!"
Now, of course, Messiah is a fixture of the Christmas season. Woe to the concert hall in the United States or Britain that fails to schedule the piece around the holiday, when, as well, CD sales and Web downloads of the oratorio soar. For many amateur choirs, the work is the heart of their repertoire and the high point of the year. In most of Handel's oratorios, the soloists dominate and the choir sings only brief choruses. But in Messiah, says Laurence Cummings, director of the London Handel Orchestra, "the chorus propels the work forward with great emotional impact and uplifting messages."
This year, the 250th anniversary of Handel's death, has been a boon to the Baroque composer and his best-known work. The commemoration has centered in London, where Handel lived for 49 years, until his death in 1759 at age 74. The BBC has broadcast all of his operas, more than 40 in total, and every one of the composer's keyboard suites and cantatas was performed during the annual London Handel Festival, which included concerts at St. George's Hanover Square church, where Handel worshiped, and at the Handel House Museum ("See Handel Slept Here,"), longtime residence of the man that Ludwig van Beethoven himself, citing Messiah, said was the "greatest composer that ever lived."
He was born in Halle, Germany, into a religious, affluent household. His father, Georg Händel, a celebrated surgeon in northern Germany, wanted his son to study the law. But an acquaintance, the Duke of Weissenfels, heard the prodigy, then barely 11, playing the organ. The nobleman's recognition of the boy's genius likely influenced the doctor's decision to allow his son to become a musician. By 18, Handel had composed his first opera, Almira, initially performed in Hamburg in 1705. During the next five years, he was employed as a musician, composer and conductor at courts and churches in Rome, Florence, Naples and Venice, as well as in Germany, where the Elector of Hanover, the future King George I of England, was briefly his patron.
Handel's restless independence contrasted him with the other great composer of the age, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), whom he did not meet. "Bach never moved out of the cocoon of court patronage or church employment," says Harry Bicket, a conductor, harpsichordist and London-based director of The English Concert chamber orchestra. Handel, on the other hand, rarely attached himself to any benefactor for long, although he would compose court music when asked. He wrote The Water Music (1717), one of the few of his pieces other than Messiah recognizable to the average concertgoer, for George I, to be performed for the monarch as His Majesty's barge navigated through a London canal on a summer evening. "But [Handel] didn't hang around palace antechambers waiting for his lordship or royal highness," says Jonathan Keates, author of Handel: The Man and his Music.
Such free-spirited musical entrepreneurship was more than possible in London, to which Handel moved permanently in 1710. A commercial boom underpinned by overseas trade had created a thriving new merchant and professional class that broke the monopoly on cultural patronage by the nobility. Adding zest to the London music scene were rivalries that split the audience into two broad musical camps. On one side were defenders of the more conventional Italian opera style, who idolized the composer Giovanni Bononcini (1670-1747) and brought him to London. Enthusiasts of Handel's new Italian operas cast their lot with the German-born composer. The partisanship was captured in a 1725 verse by poet John Byrom:
Some say compared to Bononcini,
That Mynheer Handel's but a Ninny;
Others aver, that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle
Increasingly elaborate opera productions led to rising costs due, in part, to hiring musicians and singers from Italy. "It was generally agreed Italian singers were better trained and more talented than local products," notes Christopher Hogwood, a Handel biographer and founder of the Academy of Ancient Music, the London period-instrument orchestra he directs. But beautiful voices were often accompanied by mercurial temperaments. At a 1727 opera performance, Handel's leading sopranos, Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, actually came to blows onstage, with their partisans cheering them on. "Shame that two such well-bred ladies should call [each other] Bitch and Whore, should scold and fight," John Arbuthnot (1667-1735), the mathematician and satirist, wrote in a pamphlet describing the increasing hysteria of London's opera world.
In the 1730s, the emotional and financial toll of producing operas, as well as changing audience tastes, contributed to Handel's growing interest in sacred oratorios—which required neither elaborate scenery nor foreign stars—including, eventually, Messiah. "With oratorios, Handel could be more his own master," says Keates.
Despite his fame, Handel's inner life remains enigmatic. "We know far more about the environment in which he lived and the sort of people he knew than about his private life," Keates adds. Part of the explanation lies in the dearth of personal letters. We must rely on contradictory descriptions of Handel by admirers and detractors, whose opinions were colored by the musical rivalries of 1700s London.
Although he neither married nor was known to have had a long-lasting romantic relationship, Handel was pursued by various young women and a leading Italian soprano, Vittoria Tarquini, according to accounts by his contemporaries. Intensely loyal to friends and colleagues, he was capable of appalling temper outbursts. Because of a dispute over seating in an orchestra pit, he fought a near-fatal duel with a fellow composer and musician, Johann Mattheson, whose sword thrust was blunted by a metal button on Handel's coat. Yet the two remained close friends for years afterward. During rehearsals at a London opera house with Francesca Cuzzoni, Handel grew so infuriated by her refusal to follow his every instruction that he grabbed her by the waist and threatened to hurl her out an open window. "I know well that you are a real she-devil, but I will have you know that I am Beelzebub!" he screamed at the terrified soprano.
Handel, who grew increasingly obese over the years, certainly had an intimidating physique. "He paid more attention to [food] than is becoming to any man," wrote Handel's earliest biographer, John Mainwaring, in 1760. Artist Joseph Goupy, who designed scenery for Handel operas, complained that he was served a meager dinner at the composer's home in 1745; only afterward did he discover his host in the next room, secretly gorging on "claret and French dishes." The irate Goupy produced a caricature of Handel at an organ keyboard, his face contorted into a pig snout, surrounded by fowl, wine bottles and oysters strewn at his feet.
"He may have been mean with food, but not with money," says Keates. Amassing a fortune through his music and shrewd investments in London's burgeoning stock market, Handel donated munificently to orphans, retired musicians and the ill. (He gave his portion of his Messiah debut proceeds to a debtors' prison and hospital in Dublin.) A sense of humanity imbues his music as well—a point often made by conductors who compare Handel with Bach. But where Bach's oratorios exalted God, Handel was more concerned with the feelings of mortals. "Even when the subject of his work is religious, Handel is writing about the human response to the divine," says conductor Bicket. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Messiah. "The feelings of joy you get from the Hallelujah choruses are second to none," says conductor Cummings. "And how can anybody resist the Amen chorus at the end? It will always lift your spirits if you are feeling down."
Handel composed Messiah in an astounding interlude, somewhere between three and four weeks in August and September 1741. "He would literally write from morning to night," says Sarah Bardwell of the Handel House Museum in London. The text was prepared in July by the prominent librettist, Charles Jennens, and was intended for an Easter performance the following year. "I hope [Handel] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other Subject," Jennens wrote to a friend.
There were several reasons for the choice of Dublin for Messiah's debut. Handel had been downcast by the apathetic reception that London audiences had given his works the previous season. He did not want to risk another critical failure, especially with such an unorthodox piece. Other Handel oratorios had strong plots anchored by dramatic confrontations between leading characters. But Messiah offered the loosest of narratives: the first part prophesied the birth of Jesus Christ; the second exalted his sacrifice for humankind; and the final section heralded his Resurrection.
Dublin was one of the fastest-growing, most prosperous cities in Europe, with a wealthy elite eager to display its sophistication and the economic clout to stage a major cultural event. "So it was a great advantage for Handel to make the voyage to Dublin to try out his new work, and then bring it back to London," says Keates, comparing the composer to Broadway producers who tried out plays in New Haven before staging them in New York City.
Messiah's success in Dublin was in fact quickly repeated in London. It took time for Messiah to find its niche as a Christmas favorite. "There is so much fine Easter music—Bach's St. Matthew Passion, most especially—and so little great sacral music written for Christmas," says Cummings. "But the whole first part of Messiah is about the birth of Christ." By the early 19th century, performances of Messiah had become an even stronger Yuletide tradition in the United States than in Britain.
There is little doubt about Handel's own fondness for the work. His annual benefit concerts for his favorite charity—London's Foundling Hospital, a home for abandoned and orphaned children—always included Messiah. And, in 1759, when he was blind and in failing health, he insisted on attending an April 6 performance of Messiah at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. Eight days later, Handel died at home.
His total estate was assessed at 20,000 pounds, which made him a millionaire by modern standards. He left the bulk of his fortune to charities and much of the remainder to friends, servants and his family in Germany. His one posthumous present to himself was £600 for his own monument at Westminster Abbey, final resting place for British monarchs and their most accomplished subjects. Three years after Handel's death, the monument by French sculptor Louis François Roubillac, was installed.
Abroad, Handel's reputation—and that of his best-known composition—only continued to grow. Mozart paid Handel the supreme compliment of reorchestrating Messiah in 1789. Even Mozart, however, confessed himself to be humble in the face of Handel's genius. He insisted that any alterations to Handel's score should not be interpreted as an effort to improve the music. "Handel knows better than any of us what will make an effect," Mozart said. "When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt."
Classical music aficionado Jonathan Kandell is based in New York City.
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George Frideric Handel, German (until 1715) Georg Friedrich Händel, Händel also spelled Haendel, (born February 23, 1685, Halle, Brandenburg [Germany]—died April 14, 1759, London, England), German-born English composer of the late Baroque era, noted particularly for his operas, oratorios, and instrumental compositions. He wrote the most famous of all oratorios, Messiah (1741), and is also known for such occasional pieces as Water Music (1717) and Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749).
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Handel was the son of a barber-surgeon. He showed a marked gift for music and became a pupil in Halle of the composer Friedrich W. Zachow, learning the principles of keyboard performance and composition from him. His father died when Handel was 11, but his education had been provided for, and in 1702 he enrolled as a law student at the University of Halle. He also became organist of the Reformed (Calvinist) Cathedral in Halle, but he served for only one year before going north to Hamburg, where greater opportunities awaited him. In Hamburg, Handel joined the violin section of the opera orchestra. He also took over some of the duties of harpsichordist, and early in 1705 he presided over the premiere in Hamburg of his first opera, Almira.
Handel spent the years 1706–10 traveling in Italy, where he met many of the greatest Italian musicians of the day, including Arcangelo Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti and his son Domenico. He composed many works in Italy, including two operas, numerous Italian solo cantatas (vocal compositions), Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno (1707) and another oratorio, the serenataAci, Galatea e Polifemo (1708), and some Latin (i.e., Roman Catholic) church music. His opera Agrippina enjoyed a sensational success at its premiere in Venice in 1710.
Handel’s years in Italy greatly influenced the development of his musical style. His fame had spread throughout Italy, and his mastery of the Italian opera style now made him an international figure. In 1710 he was appointed Kapellmeister to the elector of Hanover, the future King George I of England, and later that year Handel journeyed to England. In 1711 his opera Rinaldo was performed in London and was greeted so enthusiastically that Handel sensed the possibility of continuing popularity and prosperity in England. In 1712 he went back to London for the production of his operas Il pastor fido and Teseo (1713). In 1713 he won his way into royal favour by his Ode for the Queen’s Birthday and the Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate in celebration of the Peace of Utrecht, and he was granted an annual allowance of £200 by Queen Anne.
Recognized by prominent members of both the English aristocracy and the intelligentsia, Handel was in no hurry to return to Hanover. Soon he had no need to do so, for on the death of Queen Anne in 1714, the elector George Louis became King George I of England. In 1718 Handel became director of music to the duke of Chandos, for whom he composed the 11 Chandos Anthems and the English masqueAcis and Galatea, among other works. Another masque, Haman and Mordecai, was to be the effective starting point for the English oratorio.
Except for a few visits to the European continent, Handel spent the rest of his life in England. In February 1727 he became a British subject, which enabled him to be appointed a composer of the Chapel Royal. In this capacity he wrote much music, including the Coronation Anthems for George II in 1727 and the Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline 10 years later.
From 1720 until 1728 the operas at the King’s Theatre in London were staged by the Royal Academy of Music, and Handel composed the music for most of them. Among those of the 1720s were Floridante (1721), Ottone (1723), Giulio Cesare (1724), Rodelinda (1725), and Scipione (1726). From 1728, after the sensation caused by John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (which satirized serious opera), the future of opera in the Italian style became increasingly uncertain in England. It went into decline for a variety of reasons, one of them being the impatience of the English with a form of entertainment in an unintelligible language sung by artists of whose morals they disapproved. But despite the vagaries of public taste, Handel went on composing operas until 1741, by which time he had written more than 40 such works. As the popularity of opera declined in England, oratorio became increasingly popular. The revivals in 1732 of Handel’s masques Acis and Galatea and Haman and Mordecai (renamed Esther) led to the establishment of the English oratorio—a large musical composition for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra, without acting or scenery, and usually dramatizing a story from the Bible in English-language lyrics. Handel first capitalized on this genre in 1733 with Deborah and Athalia.
Handel also continued to comanage an Italian opera company in London despite many difficulties. Throughout his London career he had suffered competition not only from rival composers but also from rival opera houses in a London that could barely support even one Italian opera in addition to its English theatres. Finally, in 1737, his company went bankrupt and he himself suffered what appears to have been a mild stroke. After a course of treatment at Aachen (Germany), he was restored to health and went on to compose the Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline (1737) and two of his most celebrated oratorios, Saul and Israel in Egypt, both of which were performed in 1739. He also wrote the Twelve Grand Concertos, Op. 6, and helped establish the Fund for the Support of Decayed Musicians (now the Royal Society of Musicians).
Handel was by this time at the height of his powers, and the year 1741 saw the composition of his greatest oratorio, Messiah, and its inspired successor, Samson. Messiah was given its first performance in Dublin on April 13, 1742, and created a deep impression. Handel’s works of the next three years included the oratorios Joseph and His Brethren (first performed 1744) and Belshazzar (1745), the secular oratorios Semele (1744) and Hercules (1745), and the Dettingen Te Deum (1743), celebrating the English victory over the French at the Battle of Dettingen. Handel had by this time made oratorio and large-scale choral works the most popular musical forms in England. He had created for himself a new public among the rising middle classes, who would have turned away in moral indignation from the Italian opera but who were quite ready to be edified by a moral tale from the Bible, set to suitably dignified and, by now, rather old-fashioned music. Even during his lifetime Handel’s music was recognized as a reflection of the English national character, and his capacity for realizing the common mood was nowhere better shown than in the Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749), with which he celebrated the peace of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. Handel now began to experience trouble with his sight. He managed with great difficulty to finish the last of his oratorios, Jephtha, which was performed at Covent Garden Theatre, London, in 1752. He kept his interest in musical activities alive until the end. After his death on April 14, 1759, he was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
The first basis of Handel’s style was the north German music of his childhood, but it was soon completely overlaid by the Italian style that he acquired in early adulthood during his travels in Italy. The influences of Arcangelo Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti can be detected in his work to the end of his long life, and the French style of Jean-Baptiste Lully and, later, that of the English composer Henry Purcell are also evident. There is a robustness in Handel’s later music that gives it a very English quality. Above all, his music is eminently vocal. Handel’s directness of manner makes him one of the great masters of choral music. His choruses have a power and effectiveness that have never been surpassed, and his writing for them is remarkable for the manner in which he interweaves massive but simple harmonic passages with contrapuntal sections of great ingenuity, the whole most effectively illustrating the text. His writing for the solo voice is outstanding in its suitability for the medium and its unerring melodic line. Handel had a striking ability to depict human character musically in a single scene or aria, a gift used with great dramatic power in his operas and oratorios.
Though the bulk of his music was vocal, Handel was nevertheless one of the great instrumental composers of the late Baroque era. His long series of overtures (mostly in the French style), his orchestral concertos (Op. 3 and Op. 6), his large-scale concert music for strings and winds (such as the Water Music and the Fireworks Music), and the massive double concertos and organ concertos all show him to have been a complete master of the orchestral means at his command.
Handel had a lifelong attachment to the theatre—even his oratorios were usually performed on the stage rather than in church. Until almost the end of his life he loved Italian opera, and only after it involved him in ever-increasing financial losses did he abandon it for English oratorio. Like other composers of his time, he accepted the conventions of Italian opera, with its employment of male sopranos and contraltos and the formalized sequences of stylized recitatives and arias upon which opera seria was constructed. Using these conventions, he produced many masterpieces. Among the Italian operas, such works as Giulio Cesare (1724), Sosarme (1732), and Alcina (1735) still make impressive stage spectacles, with some scenes of great dramatic power bursting through the formal Baroque grandeur. Many of his Italian operas were revived in the 20th century.
But Handel’s oratorios now seem even more dramatic than his operas, and they can generally be performed on the stage with remarkably little alteration. Most of them, from early attempts such as Esther to such consummately crafted later works as Saul, Samson, Belshazzar, and Jephtha, treat a particular dramatic theme taken from the Old Testament that illustrates the heroism and suffering of a particular individual. The story line is illustrated by solo recitatives and arias and underlined by the chorus. With Israel in Egypt and Messiah, however, the emphasis is quite different, Israel because of its uninterrupted chain of massive choruses, which do not lend themselves to stage presentation, and Messiah because it is a meditation on the life of Christ the Saviour rather than a dramatic narration of his Passion. Handel also used the dramatic oratorio genre for a number of secular works, chief among which are Semele and Hercules, both based on stories from Greek mythology. But the finest of his secular choral works is Acis and Galatea, which has a youthful magic he never quite recovered in subsequent pieces of this type.
Handel’s most notable contribution to church music is his series of large-scale anthems, foremost of which are the 11 Chandos Anthems; though written for a small group of singers and instrumentalists, they are conceived on a grand scale. Closely following these works are the four Coronation Anthems for George II; the most celebrated of these, Zadok the Priest, is a striking example of what Ludwig van Beethoven called Handel’s ability to achieve “great effects with simple means.”
Most of the orchestral music Handel wrote consists of overtures, often in the style of Lully, and totaling about 80 in number. Handel was equally adept at the concerto form, especially the concerto grosso, in which he generally employed four or more movements. His most important works of this type are the Six Concerti Grossi (known as The Oboe Concertos), Op. 3, and the Twelve Grand Concertos, which represent the peak of the Baroque concerto grosso for stringed instruments. The Water Music and Fireworks Music suites, for wind and string band, stand in a special class in the history of late Baroque music by virtue of their combination of grandeur and melodic bravura. They are still among the most popular of his works.
Handel also published harpsichord music, of which two sets of suites, the Suites de pièces pour le clavecin of 1720 and the Suites de pièces of 1733, containing 17 sets in all, are his finest contribution to that instrument’s repertoire. The ever-popular Harmonious Blacksmith variations are in No. 5 of the Suites de pièces of 1720. Handel’s finest chamber music consists of trio sonatas, notably those published as Six Sonatas for Two Violins, Oboes, or German Flutes and Continuo, Op. 2 (1733). He also wrote various sonatas for one or more solo instruments with basso continuo accompaniment for harpsichord. In addition, he was a notable organist and composed more than 20 organ concertos, most of which Handel used as intermission features during performances of his oratorios.
In England, Handel was accorded the status of a classic composer even in his own lifetime, and he is perhaps unique among musicians in never having suffered any diminution of his reputation there since. As a young man on the European continent, he had to some extent supplied the demands of aristocratic patronage, but in England he adapted himself to a different climate of opinion and taste and came to serve and express the needs of a wider public. More than anyone else, he democratized music, and in this respect his popular oratorios, his songs, and his best-loved instrumental works have a social significance that complements their purely musical importance. Handel’s music became an indispensable part of England’s national culture. In Germany, meanwhile, interest in his music grew apace in the late 18th century and reestablished him as a German composer of the first rank.Charles CudworthThe Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica