George Frideric Handel
b. Halle an der Saale, Germany, 23 February 1685; d. London, 14 April 1759
Handel was one of the greatest composers of the eighteenth century, yet his operas have only recently commanded as much enthusiasm as his oratorios and instrumental works. Rarely an innovator, Handel accepted most of the conventions he inherited and the majority of his subjects are taken from the stock library of history, myth and romantic legend. Handel's operas are remarkable for the way in which the music can illuminate the psychological state of the protagonists, transforming two-dimensional characters into living, suffering human beings. Unquestionably, Handel is the greatest exponent of opera seria, and it would be hard to imagine any of his rivals enjoying the same kind of revival that he has over the last sixty years.
Handel's earliest operas were staged at Hamburg, the city to which he moved in 1703. In 1706 he left Hamburg for Italy, where he achieved his first operatic breakthrough: Agrippina (1709). On the strength of this triumph, Handel gained employment the following year with the Elector of Hanover, who immediately gave the composer a year's leave to visit England where he exploited the fashion for opera seria with Rinaldo, a work which achieved instant success.
In 1711, his year in London having expired, Handel reluctantly returned to Hanover, but the Elector took the generous step of granting his errant composer another leave of absence – on condition that he return within a reasonable time. Arriving back in England, Handel saw his most recent opera, Il pastor fido, produced at the Haymarket, but neither this nor Tesseo realized anything like the popularity of Rinaldo. Handel had to look to the aristocracy for patronage, and in 1713 Queen Anne granted him the annual encouragement of a £200 pension. The next year Anne died and Handel's Hanoverian patron – who had long been expecting his protégé back in Germany – became King George I, placing Handel in a highly embarrassing situation. Although he was temporarily in disgrace for having disobeyed his benefactor, Handel was now free to remain in England, where for the next two decades he dominated the country's operatic culture.
In 1719 he was introduced to the Royal Academy of Music, a group of high-society amateurs who, recognizing the financial demands of opera production, aimed to raise the necessary funds through subscription. Handel was made music director of the Academy, and for its second production he composed Radamisto, and between 1721 and 1726 he wrote what are now held to be two of his masterpieces in the genre – Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano.
In 1728 the Royal Academy collapsed, partly because Handel and his colleagues had submitted to the fashion for celebrity singers. However, the death blow was dealt by John Gay, whose The Beggar's Opera torpedoed traditional Italianate opera in England while freely plundering music from Rinaldo. Opera seria was lampooned and eclipsed by the irreverent and unpretentious genre of the ballad opera, and even though Handel composed two new works for the Academy, the company failed to make it into the new year.
But when the public began to tire of The Beggar's Opera Handel decided to have another go. He approached a number of the defunct Academy's wealthier survivors, making a fresh start at the King's Theatre, but his new works were not well received. Similarly weak were Handel's attempts at reviving past hits, and with the advent of a rival company, the Opera of the Nobility, the pressure to succeed became enormous.
The Opera of the Nobility acquired the services of a number of the Academy's former singers and, in the greatest coup of all, they secured the London debut of Farienlli, the most famous castrato of the day. Handel responded by moving to Covent Garden, where he engaged the dancer Maria Sallé for a lavish production of his spectacular Ariodante, following this up with Alcina. The contest lost Handel a fortune, and in 1732 a revival of one of his early oratorios, Esther, suggested to Handel that his future lay outside the theatre.
Handel nonetheless went on to compose a further eight operas, but none met with any favour – indeed at least three of them (including Serse) might be counted among his greatest commercial, though not artistic, catastrophes. By 1741 he was forced to recognize that the public no longer wanted his operas, and they disappeared from the repertoire for some two hundred years. Handel was saved by the massive successes of his dramatic oratorios Messiah <link to ENO production> and Samson, the monumental power and beauty of which ensured that, at his death, he was mourned as a national hero.
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