George Handel

George Handel

(born Halle 23 February 1685; died London 14 April 1759)

Handel, a cosmopolitan figure who was German by birth but who became a naturalised British citizen in 1727, is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest composers of his age. Though he wrote in all the available vocal and instrumental genres, Handel made his reputation (and fortune) by composing opera to Italian librettos, principally for the London stage. When the London public’s taste for Italian opera waned in the 1730s, he developed and refined the English oratorio as an important genre. While his reputation from his death until the early twentieth century rested on a small number of orchestral works (Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks) and choral works (the coronation anthem Zadok the Priest and, most of all, Messiah), today, following the modern revival of his extensive operatic output, his full stature as a dramatic composer of the front rank can be appreciated.

Handel's Musical Style

Handel’s operas are characterised by the use of mainly high voices (female and male castrati), with roles for basses generally being assigned to rulers or old men; only later does the tenor voice begin to feature regularly. The male castrati singers such as Senesino were the A-list celebrities of the day, whose every move in public or private fascinated the public.

Handel’s operatic style is centred on the da capo aria, an A–B–A structure which, in the reprise of the A section, allowed the vocalist to present an improvised ornamented version of Handel’s melodic line designed to show off the singer’s gifts. Specific orchestral colour is sometimes important (e.g. the use of horns or trumpets), but generally the instrumental support is provided by a small string orchestra supplemented by oboes, bassoon and harpsichord. In Handel’s operas the voice is always paramount.

Handel's Life

Handel’s earliest musical training was on the organ and violin in his native Halle. Aged 18 he was playing violin in the Hamburg Opera orchestra, and a year later not only directed performances from the harpsichord but also composed his first opera. Travels in Europe took him to Italy in 1707 where he composed his celebrated Dixit Dominus. In 1710 he accepted an appointment with the Elector of Hanover (later King George I), and that same year he made his first visit to London where he eventually settles. Feted by royalty and the English aristocracy, Handel was cherished by London society for the rest of his life. He dominated the London stage with his 40+ opera seria based on classical or distant historical subjects, all of which were written for the finest singers of the day. He also provided ceremonial music for important royal occasions such as the suites of Water Music for the king’s water party on the Thames in 1717 and the anthems for King George II and Queen Caroline’s coronation at Westminster Abbey in 1727. His English-language oratorios were a natural extension of his stage works; despite their Old Testament sources, most of them were given during Lent in theatres rather than churches. Plagued by failing sight at the end of his life, he died in his London home in Brook Street (now the Handel House Museum) on Easter Saturday 1759.

Handel's Music: Where to Start

Notable Operas

  • Radamisto (1720)
  • Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt) (1724)
  • Ariodante (1735)
  • Alcina (1735)
  • Serse (Xerxes) (1738)
  • Semele (1744) – to an English text by Congreve