A Brief History of Handel, the Big Opera Master
Bach and Handel are often tied together in a discussion of Baroque music – they were both masters of music, both German-born, both wildly popular – and they were even born the same year, in 1685.
We’ve already done a brief history video on Bach, so definitely check that out – he’s one of my favorite composers. But now it’s time to get into the history of Handel.
Handel is a relatively well-known composer nowadays, but he still lives (is dead in?) Bach’s shadow. Where most people know the name Bach, some people know Handel. But in the early 1700s, Handel was just as famous – perhaps even more so.
In today’s video, we’re going to talk about the life of Handel. Upcoming videos will discuss his music, so today we’re going to focus on the man behind the music.
Let’s get started!
History of Handel: Basic details
Handel was born in 1685 in Halle, Germany, though he spent most of his life in London, England. As we already mentioned, that was the same year Bach was born in, as well as another Baroque master named Scarlatti. Neat, right?
Handel was multi-talented and wrote in many genres, being particularly well-known for his operas and oratorios. He wrote over 40 operas in 30 years, which is mind-blowingly productive – that would be like writing, producing and recording one or two movies a year…but with all the music writing thrown in there.
Unlike some other composers, Handel lived a relatively long life (he died at 74, in 1759) and died wealthy and respectable.
George Frideric Handel was born to a 63-year old father named Georg Handel in Halle, and a mother named Dorothea Taust who was the daughter of a minister.
They were not an aristocratic family, and Handel’s father was a barber-surgeon so they weren’t musical either. But he was a self-made man and pushed all of his five children (except his youngest daughter) into the medical profession.
Handel Junior was born to Handel Senior’s second wife, along with two girls.
From a young age Handel showed much interest in music, but lore has it that his father didn’t approve, taking pains to prevent him from having a musical education.
According to Handel biographer Mainwaring, Handel “found means to get a little clavichord privately convey’d to a room at the top of the house. To this room he constantly stole when the family was asleep”.
Handel’s music education
When Handel was quite young, we went on a trip with his father to Weissenfels. When at the palace chapel of the Holy Trinity, Handel wandered over to the court organ and impressed everyone with his playing, including Duke Johann Adolf I.
The Duke suggested to Handel’s father that he get a music education, and that wasn’t something Handel’s father could refuse.
That led Handel to his first and only teacher, Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow. Zachow taught Handel organ in the old school style full of fugues and counterpoint, as well as integrating styles from Italy and other countries.
In addition to learning the organ, Handel studied harpsichord, violin, and especially the oboe. Handel wrote quite a few pieces for the oboe in his lifetime since he was so fond of it.
One common teaching practice of that time was to write out music by hand by other composers, in order to study their skills. Kind of like how kids do math workbooks, Handel copied out music.
Zachow also liked to drink and party, so Handel took on a lot of the organist duties at church, which including writing new music for weekly services.
University and first compositions
Handel Senior died when Handel Junior was twelve years old, In 1697. In 1702, perhaps as a nod to his father who wanted him to become a lawyer, Handel enrolled in the University of Halle.
He was also the organist at a Cathedral in Halle, which was no small feat for a young man given that this was a prestigious position.
Around this time Handel met yet another Baroque legend, Telemann. Telemann was just four years older (why were all these masters born right around the same time?) and was also studying law.
Telemann reminisced later how him and Handel spent many hours analyzing the music of Johann Kuhnau, and how the two men spent lots of time together and wrote letters.
Handel later traveled to Hamburg in search of bigger and better things – Telemann had sparked in him an interest in secular music, and Hamburg provided more opportunity for a fledgling musician.
Here he played as the harpsichordist and violinist in the orchestra and began writing his first operas, Almira and Nero, in 1705.
He began traveling through Italy and writing Italian opera. Agrippina, written in 1709, was a huge hit, running for almost a month straight and the audience was “thunderstruck with the grandeur and sublimity of his style”.
Handel enjoyed success and had a stint as Kappelmeister to German prince George, who would go on to become King George I in England. After writing the famous opera Rinaldo, Handel decided to move on to England, where he would remain for the rest of his life, becoming a naturalized citizen.
History of Handel: Move to London
Handel had earned his way into aristocratic circles, and had some wealthy patrons such as Queen Anne and The 3rd Earl of Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork. Handel wrote the famous Water Music for King George I, which was performed outdoors to much pomp and ceremony. This was one of his earliest instrumental suites.
This composition helped Handel and King George I reconcile – George was apparently salty when Handel decided to quit being his Kappelmeister and move to England. But all’s well that ends well.
Handel then became the house composer at Cannons. In this era, musicians were often sponsored by wealthy patrons and would live at an estate to provide all of the music services.
This is where he wrote Acis and Galatea for the First Duke of Chandos, becoming Handel’s most-performed work in his life. “The music catches breath and disturbs the memory”, according to Winton Dean.
Handel started an opera company called the Royal Academy of Music in 1719, of which the Duke of Chandos was an important patron. Handel moved out of Cannons and to a house on 25 Brook Street where he would live for the rest of his life (nowadays it’s the Handel house museum).
He amassed a variety of musicians and wrote some of his best operas, including Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano.
Handel wrote Zadok the Priest for King George II’s coronation in 1727, and it’s been played in every English coronation since. The wildly popular The Beggar’s Opera premiered in 1728 and ran for two months straight, featuring some of Handel’s opera music.
Handel eventually took over the Queen’s Theatre in 1729 when the Royal Academy of Music ceased. He continued writing operas like a madman, including his first English operas, Esther and Deborah.
His contract with the Queen’s Theatre ended in 1733, and everyone expected him to retire. Not so much! Instead, Handel sought out another opera house, Covent Garden Theatre. He continued pumping out operas.
In 1737 Handel had a stroke at age 52. This stopped four of his right-hand fingers from working, and he was no longer able to perform. Everyone thought, “okay NOW Handel’s going to retire.”
Not so much! He spent six weeks in Aachen, Germany, at a spa. He played the organ again to a surprised audience, and wrote one of his most well-known operas a year later, Serse.
Deidamia was his final opera, written in 1741. After that, Handel moved on to a newer genre, the Oratorio.
Handel’s transition to oratorios
Handel became drawn toward oratorios partly for their financial return – he could ditch the elaborate costumes and performances and have English singers (which would appeal to English audiences).
Alexander’s Feast was one of Handel’s first successful oratorios in 1736, and was the transitional work that prompted him to transition away from opera. Messiah was performed in 1742, and secured Handel as a legend of choral writing.
Solomon was another well-known oratorio of Handel’s, written in 1749, but there are countless others.
History of Handel: Last days
In a follow-up sequel to Water Music, Handel wrote Music for the Royal Fireworks in 1749 to a massive audience of 12,000 people.
He followed that up with a 1750 performance of Messiah as a benefit for a children’s hospital, which he did annually until the end of his life. He also gave to a charity to help poor musicians.
It was also in 1750 when the fated carriage accident happened in the Netherlands. This accident started off a chain of events involving a failing eye, and botched eye surgery performed by the nefarious John Taylor. By 1752, Handel was completely blind.
He died in 1759 at his home at the age of 74 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. It was a huge ceremony of more than 3000 people.
Handel was well-respected by other musicians. Bach really wanted to meet him but never got the chance.
Mozart said, “Handel understands affect better than any of us. When he chooses, he strikes like a thunder bolt.”
According to Beethoven, Handel was “the master of us all… the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb.” And also, “go to him to learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means.”
Handel’s music post-mortem
Handel’s music became old-fashioned shortly after his death, and his operas fell into obscurity. Modern composers like Mozart reworked some of Handel’s compositions to keep them current and relevant.
His oratorios continued to be popular throughout England, and a revived interest in Baroque music, and Handel’s opera, occurred in the 20th century.
Handel’s personal life
We don’t know much about Handel’s personal life – we know he never married, and of course we can speculate why. It’s just too easy to assume why a flamboyant theatre man never married, but you know what they say about assuming.
We don’t know much about Handel’s personal life partly because of how long ago he lived, but also because he was a very private person, a professional through and through. We know he was wealthy and had an impressive art collection, and that he left most of his estate to his niece Johanna.
Personality of Handel
As for his personality, we know it was a big one. Handel was a large man (physically) with a large personality, who was quick to anger (and quick to joy). He was fond of the finer things in life, including rich food and drink.
Handel was a savvy businessman who paved a way for himself in a career he wasn’t born into, and managed to stay relevant for some 50 odd years, where other musicians were floundering, disappearing, dying or going broke.
He was highly productive, writing over 600 compositions, many of them being long-form such as operas and oratorios.
We also know that he was very charitable toward the end of his life, and since he was so beloved we have to assume it wasn’t just his music that drew people to him – he must’ve been quite loveable.
But as for the details, we just have to speculate.
I hope you enjoyed this brief history of Handel, and stay tuned for more Handel videos in the coming months, including the music of Handel.