Today we’re going to look at the music of Handel and explore 5 of favorites. Most of these are considered Handel’s most famous works, so it’ll give you a good starting point if you’re looking to get into the music of Handel.
As we do with these videos, we’ll talk a bit about each composition, and then listen to a short example. Be sure to check out the blog if you want links to complete performances (or you can do your own Spotify/YouTube searches).
Music of Handel: Messiah [oratorio]
Handel’s Messiah (HWV 56) is one of the most famous compositions of all time, let alone by Handel. In this giant work you’ll find the Hallelujah chorus which you’ll recognize instantly when we take a listen to it. We’ve actually devoted an entire video to the Hallelujah chorus if you want to get even deeper into this composition.
It was composed in 1741 and the text was based off Psalms from the King James Bible.
An oratorio is a choral work, different from an opera in that it doesn’t involve the same drama and storyline.
Amazingly, this giant composition (it’s over 2 hours long, and the manuscript is 259 pages) was finished in about 3 weeks – it really speaks to the productivity of past musicians.
Performer: Orchestra Gli Armonici
Copyright: PD 1.0
Orchestra: Water Music
Now let’s talk about some of Handel’s orchestral music. There are a couple really popular selections, the first of which is his Water Music suites.
Water Music was commissioned by King George I, and was designed to be performed outside, meaning it’s scored for a large Baroque orchestra. It premiered in 1717, and contains a variety of dance movements typical of a Baroque suite (be sure to check out our video on the Baroque dance suite if you want to dig deeper).
The suites are called “Water Music” since they were literally performed on the water – on the river Thames.
I chose Handel’s Hornpipe for my wedding ceremony, since I felt the jolly vibe was perfect for exiting the church. And I love Baroque music. If you want to know more about that, I made a video on my wedding music selections.
We’re not going to be listening to the Hornpipe today – I’d like to share another movement I really like,
The “Allegro – Andante – Allegro da capo Aria” movement (it’s the third in the set).
Orchestra: Music for the Royal Fireworks
The other big Baroque outdoor orchestra performance that Handel wrote, equally famous, is his Music for the Royal Fireworks. This premiered much later, in 1749, and was commissioned by King George II.
There were fireworks scheduled in London’s Green Park, and Handel was brought on to write the music for the occasion. It was to celebrate the end of the War of the Austrian Succession and the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) in 1748.
Interestingly, this suite is scored for wind instruments only, which Handel was unhappy about. He wanted to add string instruments, but King George II didn’t want “fiddles” for the occasion. Handel went on to re-score it with string instruments after the event.
12,000 people travelled to see the show, which caused a huge traffic jam on London Bridge. Another hitch in the evening was the rainy weather, which caused the fireworks to misfire – one of the pavilions even caught fire during the show. The music, however, was very successful.
Let’s take a listen to a little bit from the first movement, the overture. It’s very grand!
Keyboard music: The Harmonious Blacksmith
Now we’re going to take a look at some keyboard music that Handel wrote. He wrote a variety of suites for the keyboard, with the most famous being the final movement from his Suite No. 5 in E major, HWV 430.
As legend has it, the final movement, Air and Variations, has the nickname “The Harmonious Blacksmith” because Handel once took cover in a blacksmith’s shop during a rainstorm. The blacksmith was humming a jaunty tune, which Handel was inspired by and used in his variations.
Like most legends, it’s completely untrue – a Handel biographer fabricated the story in the 1800s. But it sounds nice, right?
Here’s the story that is probably true (though less romantic):
“A few months after Clark’s publication the writer saw the late J.W. Windsor, Esq., of Bath, a great admirer of Handel and one who knew all his published works. He told the writer that a story of the Blacksmith at Edgware was pure imagination, that the original publisher of Handel’s lesson under that name (The Harmonious Blacksmith) was a music seller at Bath, named Lintern, whom he knew personally from buying music at the shop, that he had asked Lintern the reason for this new name, and he had told him that it was a nickname given to himself because, he had been brought up as a blacksmith, although he had afterwards turned to music, and that was the piece he was constantly asked to play. He printed the movement in a detached form, because he could sell a sufficient number of copies to make a profit.”
— William Chappell (1809–88), 1889, first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music
The set of 8 suites was composed in 1720, and are some of the earliest keyboard works that Handel wrote, originally for harpsichord.
It’s written in “variations form”, which we’ve talked about in depth on this channel using Bach’s Goldberg Variations as our guinea pig. As always, check that out if you want a deeper dive!
Performer: Christopher Wood
Copyright: PD 1.0
Concerti Grossi: Concerto Grosso no. 8, HWV 326
Finally we’ll finish this video with Handel’s Twelve Grand Concertos, op. 6, HWV 319–330. It was originally published in 1739, and the reason I’d like to talk about these is that they’re some of the best concerto grossi in Baroque repertoire.
A concerto grosso is basically an early-aged concerto (see the concerto video for more details) – small orchestra/soloists alternate with a larger orchestra.
Today we’ll be listening to an excerpt from Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 8 HWV 326, which has six movements. We’ll listen to the short adagio movement which is very expressive. It uses a tune from Handel’s popular opera Giulio Cesare, so the audience would have immediately recognized it.
I find it very beautiful, and it counterpoints some of the jauntier music we’ve listened to today to show a different side of Handel.
A full performance of the entire no. 8 concerto grosso is about 15 minutes long, and I highly encourage you to check it out.
Performer: European Archive
Copyright: PD 1.0
I hope this has given you a good starting point into Handel’s music. Baroque music, since it’s so old, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea – but I really enjoy it, and enjoy sharing it with you.
Until next time,