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George Frideric Handel (German: Georg Friedrich Händel; ) (23 February 1685 – 14 April 1759) was a Germanmarker-Englishmarker Baroque composer, who is famous for his operas, oratorios, and concerti grossi. His life and music may justly be described as "cosmopolitan": he was born in Germany, trained in Italy, and spent most of his life in England. Born in Hallemarker in the Duchy of Magdeburg, he settled in England in 1712, becoming a naturalised subject of the British crown on 22 January 1727. His works include Messiah, Water Music, and Music for the Royal Fireworks. Strongly influenced by the techniques of the great composers of the Italian Baroque era, as well as the English composer Henry Purcell, Handel's music became well-known to many composers, including Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Early years

Handel's baptismal registration (Marienbibliothek Halle)

Handel was born in Halle, Saxony-Anhaltmarker in the Duchy of Magdeburg (a province of Brandenburg-Prussia) to Georg and Dorothea (née Taust) Händel in 1685, the same year that both Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti were born. Handel displayed considerable musical talent at an early age; by the age of seven he was a skillful performer on the harpsichord and pipe organ. However, his father, a distinguished citizen of Halle and an eminent barber-surgeon who served as valet and barber to the courts of the Duchy of Saxe-Weissenfels and the Margraviate of Brandenburg, was opposed to his son's wish to pursue a musical career, preferring him to study law. By contrast, Handel's mother, Dorothea, encouraged his musical aspirations.

Handel as a boy.

Nevertheless, the young Handel was permitted to take lessons in musical composition and keyboard technique from Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, the organist of the Liebfrauenkirche, Halle. Handel learned about harmony and contemporary styles. He studied with Zachow from 1692 to 1703, when he left for Hamburg. He analyzed scores and learned to work fugue subjects and copy music. Sometimes he would take his teacher's place as organist for services. For his seventh birthday his aunt, Anna, gave him a spinet, which was placed in the attic for Handel to play, whenever he could avoid his father.

From Halle to Italy

Handel's progress was interrupted in 1697 when his father died. In 1702, following his father's wishes, Handel began the study of law at the University of Hallemarker; however, he abandoned law for music, becoming the organist at the Protestant Cathedral. In 1703, he moved to Hamburgmarker, accepting a position as violinist and harpsichordist in the orchestra of the opera house. There, he met Johann Mattheson, Christoph Graupner and Reinhard Keiser. His first two operas, Almira and Nero, were produced in 1705. He produced two other early operas, Daphne and Florindo, in 1708.

During 1706, Handel travelled to Italy at the invitation of Gian Gastone de' Medici. During his stay in Hamburg, Medici had become acquainted with Handel. Handel also met Medici's brother Ferdinando, who was a musician himself, and Antonio Salvi. While opera was temporarily banned at this time by the Pope, Handel found work as a composer of sacred music; the famous Dixit Dominus (1707) is from this era. He wrote many cantatas in operatic style for gatherings in the palace of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni. Rodrigo, his first all-Italian opera, was produced in Florencemarker in 1707. Agrippina was first produced at Venicemarker in 1709. Agrippina, which ran for an unprecedented 27 performances, showed remarkable maturity and established his reputation as an opera composer. Two oratorios, La Resurrezione and Il Trionfo del Tempo, were produced in Rome in a private setting for Ruspoli and Ottoboni in 1709 and 1710, respectively.

The move to London

Portrait of George Frederick Handel engraved by Charles Turner, 1821

In 1710, Handel became Kapellmeister to George, Elector of Hanovermarker, who would soon be King George I of Great Britain. He visited Anna Maria Luisa de' Medicimarker on his way to London in 1710, where he settled permanently in 1712, receiving a yearly income of £200 from Queen Anne. During his early years in London, one of his most important patrons was the young and wealthy Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, who showed an early love of his music. Handel spent the most carefree time of his life at Cannonsmarker and laid the cornerstone for his future choral compositions in the twelve Chandos Anthems. Romain Rolland stated that these anthems were as important for his oratorios as the cantatas were for his operas. Rolland also highly estimated Acis and Galatea, like Winton Dean, who wrote that "the music catches breath and disturbs the memory". During Handel's lifetime it was his most performed work.

In July of 1717 Handel's Water Music was first performed for a water party on the Thames. The composition was written and performed as a reconciliation between the king and Handel.

In 1723 Handel moved into a newly built house at 25 Brook Streetmarker, London, which he rented until his death in 1759. This house is now the Handel House Museummarker, a restored Georgian house open to the public with an events programme of baroque music. There is a blue commemorative plaque on the outside of the building. It was here that he composed Messiah, Zadok the Priest and Music for the Royal Fireworks. (In 2000, the upper stories of 25 Brook Street were leased to the Handel House Trust, and after an extensive restoration program, the Handel House Museummarker opened to the public on 8 November 2001.)

In 1726 Handel's opera Scipio was performed for the first time—the march from which remains the regimental slow march of the British Grenadier Guards. He was naturalised a British subject in 1727.

In 1727 Handel was commissioned to write four anthems for the coronation ceremony of King George II. One of these, Zadok the Priest, has been played at every British coronation ceremony since. Handel was director of the Royal Academy of Music 1720–1728, and a partner of John James Heidegger in the management of the King's Theatremarker 1729–1734. During March of 1734 Handel composed a wedding anthem for the Princess of Orange. Handel also had a long association with the Royal Opera Housemarker at Covent Gardenmarker, where many of his Italian operas were premiered.

In April 1737, at age 52, Handel suffered a stroke (or similar malady) which left his right arm temporarily paralysed—preventing him from performing. He also complained of difficulties in focusing his sight. To aid recovery, Handel travelled to Aachenmarker, Germanymarker — taking hot baths and eventually playing the organ for the local audience.

Having lost a fortune in operatic management, Handel gave up the business in 1740.

Later years

Following his recovery, Handel focused on composing oratorios instead of opera. Handel's Messiah was first performed in New Musick Hall in Fishamble Streetmarker, Dublin on 13 April 1742, with twenty-six boys and five men from the combined choirs of St Patrick'smarker and Christ Churchmarker cathedrals participating.

In 1749 he composed Music for the Royal Fireworks; 12,000 people came to listen. Three people died, including one of the trumpeters, on the day after.

In 1750 Handel arranged a performance of Messiah to benefit the Foundling Hospital. The performance was considered a great success and was followed by annual concerts that continued throughout his life. In recognition of his patronage, Handel was made a governor of the Hospital the day after his initial concert. He bequeathed a fair copy of Messiah to the institution upon his death. His involvement with the Foundling Hospital is today commemorated with a permanent exhibition in London's Foundling Museummarker, which also holds the Gerald Coke Handel Collection. In addition to the Foundling Hospital, Handel also gave to a charity that helped to assist impoverished musicians and their families. Also, during the summer of 1741, the Duke of Devonshire invited Handel to Dublin to give concerts for the benefit of local hospitals.

In August 1750, on a journey back from Germany to London, Handel was seriously injured in a carriage accident between The Haguemarker and Haarlemmarker in the Netherlandsmarker. In 1751 his eyesight started to fail in one eye. The cause was a cataract which was operated on by the great charlatan Chevalier Taylor. This lead to uveitis and subsequent loss of vision. Jephtha was first performed on 26 February 1752; even though it was his last oratorio, it was no less a masterpiece than his earlier works. He died some eight years later, in 1759, in London, at the age of 74, with his last attended performance being his own Messiah. More than three thousand mourners attended his funeral, which was given full state honours, and he was buried in Westminster Abbeymarker.

Handel never married, and kept his personal life very private. Unlike many composers, he left a sizable estate at his death — worth £20,000 (an enormous amount for the day), the bulk of which he left to a niece in Germanymarker — as well as gifts to his other relations, servants, friends and to favourite charities.


Main articles: List of compositions by George Frideric Handel and List of operas by Handel.
Handel's compositions include 42 operas; 29 oratorios; more than 120 cantatas, trio and duets; numerous arias; chamber music; a large number of ecumenical pieces; odes and serenatas; and 16 organ concerti. His most famous work, the Messiah oratorio with its "Hallelujah" chorus, is among the most popular works in choral music and has become a centerpiece of the Christmas season. Also popular are the Opus 3 and 6 Concerti Grossi, as well as "The Cuckoo and the Nightingale", in which birds are heard calling during passages played in different keys representing the vocal ranges of two birds. Also notable are his sixteen keyboard suites, especially The Harmonious Blacksmith.

Handel introduced various previously uncommon musical instruments in his works: the viola d'amore and violetta marina (Orlando), the lute (Ode for St. Cecilia's Day), three trombones (Saul), clarinets or small high cornets (Tamerlano), theorbo, French horn (Water Music), lyrichord, double bassoon, viola da gamba, bell chimes, positive organ, and harp (Giulio Cesare, Alexander's Feast).

Handel's works have been catalogued and are commonly referred to by a HWV number. For example, Handel's Messiah is also known as HWV 56.


After his death, Handel's Italian operas fell into obscurity, save for selections such as the ubiquitous aria from Serse, "Ombra mai fù". His reputation throughout the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, particularly in the Anglophone countries, rested primarily on his English oratorios, which were customarily performed by enormous choruses of amateur singers on solemn occasions. These include Esther (1718); Athalia (1733); Saul (1739); Israel in Egypt (1739); Messiah (1742); Samson (1743); Judas Maccabaeus (1747); Solomon (1748); and Jephtha (1752). His best are based on a libretto by Charles Jennens.

Since the 1960s, with the revival of interest in baroque music, original instrument playing styles, and the prevalence of countertenors who could more accurately replicate castrato roles, interest has revived in Handel's Italian operas, and many have been recorded and performed onstage. Of the fifty he wrote between 1705 and 1738, Agrippina (1709), Rinaldo (1711, 1731), Orlando (1733), Ariodante (1735), Alcina (1735) and Serse (1738, also known as Xerxes) stand out and are now performed regularly in opera houses and concert halls. Arguably the finest, however, are Giulio Cesare (1724), Tamerlano (1724) and Rodelinda (1725), which, thanks to their superb orchestral and vocal writing, have entered the mainstream opera repertoire.

Fireworks in 1749.

Also revived in recent years are a number of secular cantatas and what one might call secular oratorios or concert operas. Of the former, Ode for St. Cecilia's Day (1739) (set to texts of John Dryden) and Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne (1713) are particularly noteworthy. For his secular oratorios, Handel turned to classical mythology for subjects, producing such works as Acis and Galatea (1719), Hercules (1745), and Semele (1744). In terms of musical style, particularly in the vocal writing for the English-language texts, these works have close kinship with the above-mentioned sacred oratorios, but they also share something of the lyrical and dramatic qualities of Handel's Italian operas. As such, they are sometimes performed onstage by small chamber ensembles. With the rediscovery of his theatrical works, Handel, in addition to his renown as instrumentalist, orchestral writer, and melodist, is now perceived as being one of opera's great musical dramatists.

Handel has generally been accorded high esteem by fellow composers, both in his own time and since. Bach even attempted, unsuccessfully, to meet with Handel while he was visiting Halle. Mozart is reputed to have said of him, "Handel understands effect better than any of us. When he chooses, he strikes like a thunder bolt." and to Beethoven he was "the master of us all... the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb." The latter emphasized above all the simplicity and popular appeal of Handel's music when he said, "Go to him to learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means."

After Handel’s death, many composers wrote works based on or inspired by his music. The first movement from Louis Spohr’s Symphony No. 6, Op. 116, "The Age of Bach and Handel", resembles two melodies from Handel's Messiah. In 1797 Ludwig van Beethoven published the 12 Variations in G major on ‘See the conqu’ring hero comes’ from Judas Maccabaeus by Handel, for cello and piano. Guitar virtuoso Mauro Giuliani composed his Variations on a Theme by Handel, Op. 107 for guitar, based on Handel's Suite No. 5 in E major, HWV 430, for harpsichord. In 1861, using a theme from the second of Handel's harpsichord suites, Johannes Brahms wrote the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24, one of his most successful works (it even received praise from Richard Wagner). Several works by the French composer Félix-Alexandre Guilmant use themes by Handel, for example his March on a Theme by Handel for organ, which uses a theme from the Messiah. French composer and flautist Philippe Gaubert wrote his Petite marche for flute and piano based on the fourth movement of Handel’s Trio Sonata, Op. 5, No. 2, HWV 397. Argentine composer Luis Gianneo composed his Variations on a Theme by Handel for piano. In 1911, Australian born composer and pianist Percy Grainger based one of his most famous works on the final movement of Handel's Suite No. 5 in E major (just like Giuliani). He first wrote some variations on the theme, which he titled Variations on Handel’s ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’ . Then he used the first sixteen bars of his set of variations to create Handel in the Strand, one of his most beloved pieces, of which he made several versions (for example, the piano solo version from 1930). Arnold Schoenberg’s Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra in B flat major (1933) was composed after Handel's Concerto Grosso, Op. 6/7.

He is commemorated as a musician in the Calendar of Saints of the Lutheran Church on July 28, with Johann Sebastian Bach and Heinrich Schütz.

Handel's works were edited by Samuel Arnold (40 vols., London, 1787–1797), and by Friedrich Chrysander, for the German Händel-Gesellschaft (100 vols., Leipzig, 1858–1902).

Handel adopted the spelling "George Frideric Handel" on his naturalization as a British subject, and this spelling is generally used in English-speaking countries. The original form of his name (Georg Friedrich Händel) is generally used in Germany and elsewhere, but he is known as "Haendel" in France, which causes no small amount of grief to cataloguers everywhere. Another composer with a similar name, Handl, was a Slovene and is more commonly known as Jacobus Gallus.


Scores and recordings

See also

Primary Sources

Further reading



  • Burrows, Donald. Handel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-19-816470-X
  • Chrissochoidis, Ilias. "Early Reception of Handel's Oratorios, 1732-1784: Narrative – Studies – Documents" (Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University, 2004), available through UMI.
  • Deutsch, Otto Erich, Handel: A Documentary Biography, 1955.
  • Frosch, W.A., The "case" of George Frideric Handel, New England Journal of Medicine, 1989; 321:765-769, Sep 14, 1989. [1562]
  • Harris, Ellen T. (general editor) The librettos of Handel's operas: a collection of seventy librettos documenting Handel's operatic career New York: Garland, 1989. ISBN 0-8240-3862-2
  • Hogwood, Christopher. Handel. London: Thames and Hudson, 1984. ISBN 0-500-01355-1
  • Keates, Jonathan. Handel, the man and his music. London: V. Gollancz, 1985. ISBN 0-575-03573-0
  • Dean, Winton and John Merrill Knapp. Handel's Operas, 1704-1726 (Volume 1) Oxford: Clarendon Press. (1987; 2nd Ed. 1994 (softcover) ISBN 0-198-16441-6
  • Meynell, Hugo. The Art of Handel's Operas The Edwin Mellen Press (1986) ISBN 0-889-46425-1

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