George Frederick Handel

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Handel, George Frederick


Born Feb. 23, 1685, in Halle; died Apr. 14, 1759, in London. German composer who did his mature creative work in England. Son of a court barber-surgeon.

Handel developed as a composer and performer on various instruments under the guidance of the composer and organist F. Zachau. At the age of 17 he began performing as an organist in Halle. In 1703 he moved to Hamburg. Here, in Germany’s only opera house, which was directed by R. Keiser, his first operas Almira and Nero were presented. After the closing of the house in 1706 he settled in Italy, where he wrote the Italian operas Rodrigo (1707) and Agrippina (1709), the oratorio The Triumph of Time and Truth (first version), the pastoral serenade Acis and Galatea (1708), chamber cantatas, duets, vocal trios, and psalm works. In Italy, Handel gained fame as an outstanding harpsichordist.

From 1710 to 1716, Handel’s life was divided between Hannover and London. His opera Rinaldo (1711) enjoyed great success in London. In 1720 he became the head of the opera house there. At this time he wrote operas, such as Radamisto (1720), Ottone (1723), Julius Caesar (1724), and Rodelinda (1725). Handel’s model for them was the Italian opera seria, a type of opera that was prevalent throughout Western Europe. But the composer was in a difficult position in England. Though the English aristocracy preferred the works of Italian composers, bourgeois-democratic circles saw in Handel’s Italian operas a slighting of national interests. An especially powerful blow was dealt to Handel’s operatic activity by the performance in 1728 of The Beggar’s Opera (text by J. Gay, music by J. Pepusch), wherein the aristocracy was ridiculed and Italian opera parodied. (Handel’s operas were quoted, also.) Handel’s opera house was closed, but the composer continued to write operas—for example, Orlando (1733), Alcina (1735), and Xerxes (1738). Owing to new disappointments, Handel succumbed to a paralytic stroke in 1737. Upon his recovery he returned to creative activity. Handel did not ignore English musical traditions in the work of his English period. He studied the music of the great composer H. Purcell, and as early as the period from 1717 to 1719 he wrote choral pieces, or anthems, in the style of English religious music. When he turned to biblical themes, which were popular at the time in England, he composed the oratorio Esther (1720; second version, 1732).

In the 1730’s, Handel turned increasingly to the monumental oratorio as a genre, composing Deborah (1733), Saul(1739), and Israel in Egypt (1739). In the 1740’s the oratorio completely supplanted opera in his work. (Deidamia, written in 1741, was his last opera.) In 1742 his oratorio Messiah was performed in Dublin with great success. The oratorio Samson was completed in 1743.

It was in 1745 and 1746 that Handel’s heroic creative work finally received general recognition. At the time, the English were fighting off attempts to restore the Stuart dynasty, being made with the aid of the Scottish army. Handel’s works of these years, Hymn of the Volunteers and the oratorios Occasional Oratorio and Judas Maccabaeus, were enthusiastically received by a patriotic audience. Henceforth, Handel was to enjoy the reputation of a great composer, and his appearances as an organist invariably brought success. Afflicted by blindness and grave illness at the beginning of the 1750’s, he was unable to complete the oratorio Jephtha.

Operas (more than 40) and oratorios (more than 30) are the leading works in Handel’s legacy, expressing the composer’s taste for dramatic effect and for the monumental. He sought to dramatize the opera seria and increased the importance of the orchestra and chorus. However, he was unable to reform completely an operatic genre that had already become obsolete. As a genre, the oratorio proved to be a better outlet for the essential traits of Handel’s creativity. Relying on 17th-century models like G. Carissimi and H. Schutz and the achievements of operatic art, Handel created a new type of oratorio which, grandiose in scale and democratic in its musical language, influenced the works of many Western European and Russian composers. In his oratorios, not only did he examine, with great forcefulness, the drama of individual lives (for example, Samson and Jephtha), but he also revealed the suffering and struggling of the popular masses. The biblical subjects of Handel’s heroic-dramatic oratorios expressed the aspirations and expectations of the broad democratically inclined sections of the English people. Some oratorios (Hercules, Alceste, and Semele) were based on themes from antiquity. The optimistic concept of the oratorios Samson, Israel in Egypt, Judas Maccabaeus, and others anticipated in many respects the symphonic ideas of Beethoven. Among the musical forms Handel used in his oratorios were the aria, the ensemble, and the recitative. The chorus was of special importance in them, however. It was in his choruses that Handel showed himself to be a master of polyphony like J. S. Bach. The role of the orchestra was also important in his oratorios. These works contained overtures, episodes of a pictorial character, and accompaniments to vocal episodes, rich in thematic development. In the vocal-instrumental genre, Handel also composed passions, cantatas, and various religious pieces.

Handel’s legacy in instrumental music includes orchestral concerti. The most popular are the 12 concerti grossi, 12 organ concerti with orchestral or ensemble accompaniment (a new genre created by Handel), sonatas and trio sonatas for various instruments, and harpsichord works. Particularly outstanding are the pieces Water Music (1716) and Fireworks Music (1749). Written for a large orchestra and wind instruments, they were both intended for outdoor performance.


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Hallische Händel-Ausgabe, series 1-4. Leipzig-Kassel, 1955. (Publication continues.)


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