George Frideric Handel, baptised Georg Friedrich Händel; 23 February 1685 – 14 April 1759, was not just a one-hit-wonder. While this German-British Baroque composer is most well known for the Hallelujah chorus from his Messiah he also composed operas, oratorios, anthems, concerti grossi, and organ concertos.
Handel’s Zadok the Priest, one of his four coronation anthems, has been performed at every British coronation since 1727. His orchestral works Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks are also incredibly popular and are often performed at the BBC Proms.
Handel’s parents had split views on music. His father banned all musical instruments from the house and decided his son would study law. His mother on the other hand snuck a small harpsichord into their attic and did what she could to foster her son’s talent. Handel’s father had to give in and allow some music studies to continue after the Duke of Saxe-Weisenfels heard a young Handel playing the organ and declared that it would be a shame to stifle what was a God-given gift.
Handel’s father still wanted him to become a lawyer so at age 17 George Frideric Handel enrolled a the University in Halle to study law. When his father died a year later Handel dropped out and moved to Hamburg to play harpsichord in the opera house. This was a successful move as he presented his first two operas in his early 20s and then moved to Italy to continue his career.
In 1710, Handel garnered the attention of another George – the elector of Hanover. Handel was hired as the Kappellmeister (choir master) but quickly found a loophole in his contract that allowed him to move to London, England. Though this thoroughly annoyed his employer, it eventually worked out in his favour as George the elector later became King George I of England. The new king commissioned Handel to create several works including the much-loved Water Music.
Handel started three commercial opera companies to supply the English nobility with Italian opera. The lavish productions included live birds, fireworks, and incredibly complex parts that led to some off-stage drama with his leading ladies. One soprano apparently refused to sing a difficult piece and argued with Handel until he lifted her in the air and threatened to throw her out the window. In another argument with artists, again sopranos, Handel ended up writing each singer an aria of equal length down to the number of notes to try to appease their jealousy and ease tensions. The public took sides, and at one famed performance in 1927 the evening ended with the two singers in a hair-pulling brawl on stage.
Handel saw himself first and foremost as a composer of operas and only turned to Oratorio once Italian operas went out of style in the late 1730s. In 1737, after a disastrous opera season, Handel became so ill his friends worried he would never recover. Thankfully he did, but he realized it was time to switch gears and leave his Italian operas behind.
Handel returned to fame when he focused his attention on oratorios. In 1941 he wrote his most famous oratorio, really his most famous work, when the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland requested an oratorio be performed in Dublin as a benefit concert for various charities. It’s said that the demand for tickets for the first performance of Handel’s Messiah was so great they asked female concertgoers to forego their hoops in an effort to fit more people into the concert hall. (Much like how we ask people to hang their coats at Knox!)
Handel’s health declined and he lost his sight by 1752 despite many treatment attempts. He passed away in 1759 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.
Handel’s Messiah has been a hit ever since its first performance and we are delighted to continue that tradition each December (minus the 3-year Covid-19 hiatus).
Want to see a piece of Messiah history? The British Library has a digital scan of an original handwritten Messiah score.