George Frideric Handel

Incorrigibly social and cosmopolitan, George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) was the best composer, besides Johann Sebastian Bach, of the late baroque. He was born in 1685 in the small German town of Halle to a Catholic family, and he wrote his first two operas before the age of twenty. He then began to compose brilliant choral pieces in Latin for the Catholic liturgy.

Between 1707 and 1711, Handel spent time in northern Italy, hobnobbing with the great Italian composers Antonio Vivaldi, Arcangelo Corelli, and Domenico and Alessandro Scarlatti, whose sense of melody would have a great influence on him. After leaving Italy to accept a post in the court of the Elector of Hanover—who happened to be heir to the British crown—Handel convinced his new employer to let him take a year off to travel to London. Once there, Handel began popularizing opera to the English public. Rinaldo (1711) was the first opera he wrote specifically for London, and though it was in Italian, it enjoyed immense success. Many others followed, Acis and Galatea (1718), Radamisto (1720), and Giulio Cesare (1724). These works made him the king of the newly opened Royal Academy of Music, where the finest operas in England were being staged.

When the Elector of Hanover finally arrived in London in 1717 to take the crown as George I, Handel was concerned the new monarch would be angry that he had spent more time in London than back in Hanover. According to one legend, Handel composed the famous Water Music suite to win back the king’s favor; when the king heard how brilliant Handel’s music had become, he doubled his salary. During Handel’s later years in England, he shifted his focus from opera to oratorio, a dramatic but unstaged genre for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, usually religious in content. He completed more than thirty oratorios before he died. He wrote his beloved Messiah (first publicly performed in 1742), followed by Samson (1743), Semele (1744), Solomon (1749), and others.

He died in London in 1759.

ADDITIONAL FACTS

  1. Handel’s father originally wanted him to be a lawyer, not a musician.
  2. Handel’s Messiah oratorio is performed each year at Christmas at countless churches worldwide.
  3. Handel’s first opera in England, Rinaldo, featured live sparrows being released during a scene that took place in the woods
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