On 23 February, it was the 336th birthday of Georg Friedrich Handel and I believe his work as a baroque composer deserves to be mentioned and commemorated. In terms of genres, his compositions are versatile. You may find among his pieces oratorios like the famous composition Messiah, cantatas, sonatas, and even operas. In this article, I would like to present some basic biographical information and a short overview of a few of his better-known compositions. I hope it will help readers to get a bit more familiar with Handel’s life and music.
Life Story of G.F. Handel
Georg Friedrich Handel was born on 23 February 1685 in Halle, Germany. The son of a barber-surgeon, Handel demonstrated a particular talent for music at an early age. Full of curiosity about music, he became an apprentice of Friedrich W. Zachow, who taught him the basic principles of performance and composition. In 1702, Handel began studying law at the University of Halle and became an organist around the same time at the Calvinist Cathedral of Halle. However, after one year of service, Handel relocated to Hamburg for better job opportunities.
There, Handel joined the violin section of the opera orchestra and also took the position of harpsichordist. In 1705, his first opera, Almira premiered. After a couple of years of work in Hamburg, Handel spent the next four years in Italy (1706-1710), met and was influenced by Italian composers like Arcangello Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti. This was a peculiarly productive period for Handel, who composed several solo cantatas, Latin church music, oratorios, and two additional operas. In 1710, Handel’s opera Agrippina premiered in Venice to critical acclaim and commercial success.
His productive Italian period brought Handel international attention and he was subsequently offered the Kapellmeister position by the elector of Hanover, the future King George I of England. Handel accepted this, travelling to London to work on new pieces. Here, Handel wrote such operas as Il pastor fido (1712) and Teseo (1713), and also oratorios like Samson. Handel remained a resident in London until his death in 1759.
Almira, Königin von Castilien (1705) – Hamburg
As previously mentioned, Handel wrote his first opera in 1705, while living and working in Hamburg. It’s a monumental, symphonic, orchestrated opera. It’s libretto was written in German. In terms of instrumentation and sonic identity, it definitely possesses all the attributes of baroque music such as long flowing melodic lines, contrast between solo and ensemble, contrapuntal texture, and terraced dynamics. As a side note, G. F. Handel created this opera at the age of 19 which also speaks of the composer’s marvellous talent.
Agrippina (1710) – Venice
Agrippina is actually an opera seria, which contains three major acts. These were written by Handel after his three year sojourn in Italy and premiered in Venice in 1710. Due to new musical influences, its libretto was written in Italian and even though there are several German musical elements, the inspiration of Italy can also be sensed. Handel’s baroque sounds remained bright and light, but became additionally dramatic and dynamic under his Italian influences.
Water Music (1717) – London
This is in fact a collection of orchestral movements that were written during Handel’s early years in London as the Kapellmeister of King George I. Again, this collection demonstrates the versatility of Handel the composer. Water Music contains overtures, menuetos, bourrees and hornpipes that suggest French musical influences as well.
Messiah (1741) – Dublin
If Handel’s name rang a bell for you before, then you must know his most famous oratorio already. If not, Messiah is probably the first composition by Handel that you would find online. This is not an accident, since this is one of the most celebrated oratorios of the late Baroque era. It was written in the English language, representing the British influences that inspired Handel to create this particular piece. Its themes are biblical, and “messiah” means saviour, referring to the figure of Jesus Christ. Its instrumentation is in harmony with its subject: the piece has a truly airy, heavenly tone, yet it is monumental and powerful too.
Messiah and its premiere (1742) – Dublin
A final note of interest: Messiah was written and premiered for the very first time in Dublin, rather than London as commonly believed, on 13 April 1742. Handel had accepted a job offer from Matthew Dobourg and moved to Dublin for a period of time in November 1741. The premier was held at the New Music Hall in Fishamble Street. The performance was received with great applause and ‘exquisite delight’ by Dubliners. It is still counted as one of major cultural events in the history of the Irish capital. Furthermore, it has been commemorated with an open air concert on 13 April in every year since 1992 by Our Lady’s Choral Society