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  • by Mary Barton

More Than Music: G. F. Handel

Updated: Dec 26, 2019

Life is full of "what ifs", it seems.

For example, we all have ambitions and dreams. Things we love to do and want to pursue. And we tend to desire those things that we’re good at, even if we ‘re not aware of our gifts in a particular area yet. And the greater the desire, it seems, the greater the gift. How often we have heard stories of how famous singers would sing around the house as children and pretend to be on stage. In reality, that was an early form of practice - training and learning to develop vocal, musical expression.

But what if your parent has a vastly different idea of what your dreams and aspirations should be? Or what career path is best for you? What if that parent is not only unsupportive of your dreams, but actually blocks them? Then what?

What if … you were a young George Frideric Handel?

Born in Halle, Germany, in 1685, during the Baroque era wherein music is exploding in depth and complexity, you have an all-consuming desire to learn to play music. Every chance you get, you are banging around on a clavichord or organ. Someone else’s, of course, because your own father, the local barber-surgeon, insists you will become a lawyer. Music cannot put food on the table, in his mind, and you are not only not allowed to have a musical instrument in the house, but you are also banned from hanging around homes that do have one.

Yikes! The person who is supposed to compose the greatest oratorio of all time, Messiah, which would be produced by orchestras and choirs the world over for centuries, is banned from learning music! Now what?

Well, what if … your mother disagreed with your father and snuck a clavichord into the attic and allowed you to sneak up there at night and play it when your father was in bed? What if, as a young boy, while accompanying your father on a visit to the court of the Duke of Saxe-Wessenfels, you wandered into the court chapel and played the organ? And what if the Duke was so impressed, he insisted you be given lessons?

Well, as the history goes, Handel’s father had no choice but to obey the prince, and consequently, enlisted the help of the local Halle Lutheran church cantor and organist, Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow. After 3 years under his tutelage, Handel emerged a virtuoso organist and violinist, and eventually, filled in at times for some of Zachow’s performance and compositional duties.

Although Handel’s father died before Handel reached adulthood, perhaps out of respect for his father, he did enter law school but quit before completing his studies, as one would expect, to pursue the musical gifts beckoning him.

Handel would spend a couple of years as an orchestra musician for the Hamburg opera house, during which time he composed his first two operas, Almira and Nero. He then spent a few years sponging up musical influences in Italy and hanging with the likes of Arcangelo Corelli, and Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti and writing sacred music for a variety of clergy. Since, by Papal edict, it was illegal to compose or perform opera in Rome, he pursued opera in other Italian cities, composing Agrippina and Rodrigo, which premiered in Florence and Venice, respectively, the former receiving an unprecedented number of performances.

Perhaps tiring of Italy, Handel accepted the post as Kapellmeister to George Ludwig, Elector of Hanover. However, Hanover couldn’t hold him long either, as twice during a two-year period, he was granted leave to visit London and ended up reneging on his commitment in Hanover when Queen Ann offered him a handsome salary to pursue his musical aspirations in London.

It appears Handel felt more at home in London than anywhere else in the world, as he resided there for the rest of his life, and eventually became a British subject, even going so far as to anglicize the spelling of his name. When Queen Anne died in 1714, his former employer, George Ludwig, Elector of Hanover, was proclaimed King George 1, but fortunately, the King didn't hold a grudge against Handel for abandoning his previous post!

In 1719, he cofounded the Royal Academy of Music, which was to promote Italian opera in London. London seemed to embrace Handel as much as he embraced London, and he composed, produced and directed a string of operas during the next few years, including Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano, Rodelinda, Alcina and Serse, and attracted the most sought after singers of the day. And in 1727, when King George I died, Handel was bestowed the honor of composing the coronation music for King George II. The resulting anthem, Zadok the Priest, has been the coronation theme for every British monarch ever since.

In 1728, John Gay’s English-language comedic opera, “The Beggar’s Opera”, which poked fun at Italian opera, took audiences by storm, and began chipping away public interest in Italian opera and ultimately Handel’s livelihood. While Handel incorporated comedy into his opera themes in response to changing public tastes, he also began to write oratories, concertos and other genres, and eventually dropped opera altogether to focus on oratorios, which were proving successful and less expensive to produce. One wonders if this pragmatic approach to bending with public demand comes from wanting to disprove his father’s concerns about the viability of making a living as a composer.

Nevertheless, by 1741 Handel was facing an uncertain financial future. But yet again, a turn of events would reshape his life forever. He was given Charles Jennens' libretto for Messiah and commissioned to write an oratorio for a benefit concert in Dublin. The finished product would eclipse all other work he had done previously and would do after, and would become one of the greatest, most–loved and most well known compositions in music history, made all the more fascinating by having been composed in only 24 days.

Though best known for Messiah, Handel also composed orchestral works such as Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks, chamber music, keyboard music, and over 100 cantatas, in addition to his 40 operas.

Though blindness forced him to retire in 1753, he continued to compose. Surprisingly, he never married, but despite his father's misgivings, he became wealthy, and even gave generously to charity. He died April 14, 1759, was interred at Westminster Abby and remains an English icon to this day.

Not bad for a boy facing some big road blocks!

Ready to be inspired by more than music from another musical master? Check back next month as we unlock another musical treasure!

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