Composer in Focus – George Frideric Handel

Name: George Frideric Handel
Dates: 1685-1759
Country of Birth: Germany
Musical Era: Baroque


Handel is British… Handel is German! British! German! Actually he is both.  George Frideric Handel was born in Germany but moved to England and was naturalised as a British Citizen in 1727.  But he’s really German, isn’t he?  Whatever side of the argument you are on, there’s no question that Handel was one of the most beloved composers of his day. It’s true to say he was busiest and most popular in England, to where he moved in 1712 following the enormous success of his opera Rinaldo. He soon became something of a court composer, with an annual salary of £200 from Queen Anne… It seems King George wasn’t entirely keen on having a composer on his books, but G F won him over in 1716 with his Water Music, which he composed for one of George’s popular river cruise celebrations.  He wasn’t a stranger to Royal households either, for he did actually serve as court composer in Hannover for a few years before leaving Germany.

Before all that, though, Handel had made a bit of a name for himself in Italian opera, thanks to a stint in Florence from 1706, which lead to a stint in Rome. Whilst in Rome young Handel also composed for the clergy, which he was more than adept at thanks to his training in Germany – indeed he studied under a great church organist and was on track for a career as a kappelmeister/organist before he got the Opera bug. He developed an innate understanding of choral writing and that, coupled with a talent for melody and a fine sense of the dramatic, made him the perfect candidate for Opera, and then Oratorio.

Like other composers of the day, Handel was almost a lawyer, and yes his father was to blame for that. His mother, however, helped the fledgling musician greatly by allowing a small keyboard to be smuggled into the attic! It was a visit with his father, much later, to the palace of a Duke – where his half-brother was working as a valet – that Handel was plonked in front of an organ and thoroughly wowed the crowd with his skills at the keyboard.  His father quickly recognised that there was talent in his son, and he was allowed to study…

After studies and the Italian period, Handel found himself becoming popular in England and made the decision to emigrate.  Thus began a new life as an English gentleman composer, on salary with the court and free to create more opera (he brought Italian opera to the London stage and made it hugely popular) and other seminal works.  He served as Musical Director at the Royal Academy of Music from 1719 to 1734, whilst continuing to compose. From this period on he would write Oratorio and choral works, alongside opera, with Messiah receiving its world premiere in Dublin in April 1742 as one of a series of benefit concerts for local hospitals.  His set of four anthems for the coronation of King George II in 1727 left an indelible imprint on British history with one, Zadok the Priest, used at all coronations since.

Later life saw no less industry from the composer, even though he suffered a mildly debilitating stroke in 1737, was involved in a coach crash in 1750 and began to lose his sight. A botched cataract operation made things worse and by 1751 he was unable to continue working.  Handel died in London on 14 April 1759, one of Europe’s most famous and influential composers. 3,000 are said to have attended his state funeral. Beethoven is quoted as saying of Handel – “Go to him to learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means.”  Suffice to say the great composer was himself an admirer, as was Mozart.

Read more about Handel classicfm.com / Subscribe to Classical Bristol

Key works… Messiah, Water Music, Acis and Galatea, Music for the Royal Fireworks, Jeptha, Zadok the Priest and Solomon (feat. ‘Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’)

Did you know?  Handel was almost killed in a sword duel with fellow composer Johann Mattheson in 1704, and Mozart re-imagined his English opera ‘Acis and Galatea’ in 1788…

Handel in Bristol
Fri 2 Dec, 7.30pm /
Renewal Choir – ‘Messiah’ (St George’s Bristol)

Fri 9 Dec, 7.30pm /
Trevor Pinnock 70th Birthday Celebration – ‘Passacaille from Op 5 No 4’ and ‘Sonata in A’ (St George’s Bristol)

Weds 14 Dec, 7.45pm /
Bristol Ensemble/Choir of Royal Holloway – ‘Messiah’ (St George’s Bristol)

Sat 17 Dec, 4.30pm /
Bristol Choral Society – ‘Messiah’ (Mini version for families) (Colston Hall)

Sat 17 Dec, 7.30pm /
Bristol Choral Society – ‘Messiah’ (Colston Hall)