“The Messiah” Essay, Research Paper
Handel, George Frideric
b. Feb. 23, 1685, Halle, Saxony [Germany]
d. April 14, 1759, London, Eng.
German (UNTIL 1715) GEORG FRIEDRICH H?NDEL, OR HAENDEL
German-born English composer of the late Baroque era, noted
particularly for his operas, oratorios, and instrumental compositions.
He wrote the most famous of all oratorios, the Messiah (1741), and is
also known for such occasional pieces as Water Music (1717) and
Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749).
The son of a barber-surgeon, Handel showed a marked gift for music
and became a pupil in Halle of the composer Friedrich W. Zachow,
learning the principles of keyboard performance and composition
from him. His father died when Handel was 11, but his education had
been provided for, and in 1702 he enrolled as a law student at the University of Halle.
He also became organist of the Reformed (Calvinist) Cathedral in Halle, but he served
for only one year before going north to Hamburg, where greater opportunities awaited
him. In Hamburg, Handel joined the violin section of the opera orchestra. He also took
over some of the duties of harpsichordist, and early in 1705 he presided over the
premiere in Hamburg of his first opera, Almira.
Handel spent the years 1706-10 traveling in Italy, where he met many of the greatest
Italian musicians of the day, including Arcangelo Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti and
his son Domenico. He composed many works in Italy, including two operas, numerous
Italian solo cantatas (vocal compositions), Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno (1707)
and another oratorio, the serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (1708), and some Latin (i.e.,
Roman Catholic) church music. His opera Agrippina enjoyed a sensational success at its
premiere in Venice in 1709.
Handel’s years in Italy greatly influenced the development of his musical style. His fame
had spread throughout Italy, and his mastery of the Italian opera style now made him
an international figure. In 1710 he was appointed Kapellmeister to the elector of
Hanover, the future King George I of England, and later that year Handel journeyed to
England. In 1711 his opera Rinaldo was performed in London and was greeted so
enthusiastically that Handel sensed the possibility of continuing popularity and
prosperity in England. In 1712 he went back to London for the production of his operas
Il pastor fido and Teseo. In 1713 he won his way into royal favour by his Ode for the
Queen’s Birthday and the Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate in celebration of the Peace of
Utrecht, and he was granted an annual allowance of ?200 by Queen Anne.
Recognized by prominent members of both the English aristocracy and the
intelligentsia, Handel was in no hurry to return to Hanover. Soon he had no need to do
so, for on the death of Queen Anne in 1714, the elector George Louis became King
George I of England. In 1718 Handel became director of music to the Duke of Chandos,
for whom he composed the 12 Chandos Anthems and the English masque Acis and
Galatea, among other works. Another masque, Haman and Mordecai, was to be the
effective starting point for the English oratorio.
Except for a few visits to the European continent, Handel spent the rest of his life in
England. In 1726 he became a British subject, which enabled him to be appointed a
composer of the Chapel Royal. In this capacity he wrote much music, including the
Coronation Anthems for George II in 1727 and the Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline 10
From 1720 until 1728 the operas at the King’s Theatre in London were staged by the
Royal Academy of Music, and Handel composed the music for most of them. Among
those of the 1720s were Floridante (1721), Ottone (1723), Giulio Cesare (1724),
Rodelinda (1725), and Scipione (1726). From 1728, after the sensation caused by John
Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (which satirized serious opera), the future of opera in the Italian
style became increasingly uncertain in England. It went into decline for a variety of
reasons, one of them being the impatience of the English with a form of entertainment
in an unintelligible language sung by artists of whose morals they disapproved. But
despite the vagaries of public taste, Handel went on composing operas until 1741, by
which time he had written more than 40 such works. As the popularity of opera
declined in England, oratorio became increasingly popular. The revivals in 1732 of
Handel’s masques Acis and Galatea and Haman and Mordecai (renamed Esther) led to
the establishment of the English oratorio–a large musical composition for solo voices,
chorus, and orchestra, without acting or scenery, and usually dramatizing a story from
the Bible in English-language lyrics. Handel first capitalized on this form in 1733 with
Deborah and Athalia.
Handel also continued to comanage an Italian opera company in London despite many
difficulties. Throughout his London career he had suffered competition not only from
rival composers but also from rival opera houses in a London that could barely support
even one Italian opera in addition to its English theatres. Finally, in 1737, his company
went bankrupt and he himself suffered what appears to have been a mild stroke. After
a course of treatment at Aix-la-Chapelle, France, he was restored to health and went
on to compose the Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline (1737) and two of his most
celebrated oratorios, Saul and Israel in Egypt, both of which were performed in 1739.
He also wrote the Twelve Grand Concertos, Opus 6, and helped establish the Fund for
the Support of Decayed Musicians (now the Royal Society of Musicians).
Handel was by this time at the height of his powers, and the year 1741 saw the
composition of his greatest oratorio, Messiah, and its inspired successor, Samson.
Messiah was given its first performance in Dublin on April 13, 1742, and created a deep
impression. Handel’s works of the next three years included the oratorios Joseph and
His Brethren (first performed 1744) and Belshazzar (1745), the secular oratorios Semele
(1743) and Hercules (1745), and the Dettingen Te Deum (1743), celebrating the English
victory over the French at the Battle of Dettingen. Handel had by this time made
oratorio and large-scale choral works the most popular musical forms in England. He
had created for himself a new public among the rising middle classes, who would have
turned away in moral indignation from the Italian opera but who were quite ready to
be edified by a moral tale from the Bible, set to suitably dignified and, by now, rather
old-fashioned music. Even during his lifetime Handel’s music was recognized as a
reflection of the English national character, and his capacity for realizing the common
mood was nowhere better shown than in the Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749), with
which he celebrated the peace of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. Handel now began to
experience trouble with his sight. He managed with great difficulty to finish the last of
his oratorios, Jephtha, which was performed at Covent Garden Theatre, London, in
1752. He kept his interest in musical activities alive until the end. After his death on
April 14, 1759, he was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Comprehensive popular biographies are Percy M. Young, Handel, rev. ed. (1965,
reissued 1979); and Jonathan Keates, Handel: The Man and His Music (1985). Paul
Henry Lang, George Frideric Handel (1966, reprinted 1977), is a monumental study.
Documentary biographies include Otto Erich Deutsch, Handel (1954, reprinted 1974);
and H.C. Robbins Landon, Handel and His World (1984). Christopher Hogwood, Handel
(1985), includes a detailed chronological table.