Handel, George Frederick


One of the world's most gifted musicians, who was born at Halle, on the Saale, Lower Saxony, of a family which possessed no musical talent. His father, a surgeon-barber attached to the ducal court of Saxony at Weissenfels, was sixty-three years old when this son was born. His mother was the daughter of a pastor at Geibichenstein, near Halle. The family name, correctly spelled, is Handel, and is always so written by German writers. It has also been spelled Hendeler, Handeler, Hendtler, and in England, Hendel. His father was very proud of him and though he had been content for his other sons to follow humble professions, George was destined to be a doctor of laws. Consequently he discouraged the early signs of an aptitude for music, avoiding the homes where it might be heard and even keeping the boy out of school, lest he might there learn something of it. When he was about seven years old his father had some business at the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels. Determined to go, though his father forbade, he followed the carriage at a little distance, overtaking it at the first stop, and with tears and entreat- ies prevailed upon his father to allow him to proceed. The Duke was a great patron of music and one evening, hearing the little fellow at the organ, where he had playfully been placed, he was astonished at his wonderful talent. Calling to him the elder Handel, he expostulated with him, that so much evidence of ability should not receive instruction, and urged the surgeon to encourage such extraordinary genius. Accordingly, upon their return home, George was placed under the organist Zachau, for instruction. The lad made fine progress, studying singing, the organ, clavier, violin and all the other instruments then used in orchestral playing. When about eleven he composed six sonatas for two oboes and bass which show skill and feeling. He was also very diligent on the clavichord. The orean was his favorite instrument, its grandness and majesty appealed to him, and he was great in improvising.

About 1696 he went to Berlin and there met Buononcini, who was later to become his rival in England, and Father Ariosti, a distinguished master of the clavier, who was delighted with the boy and gave him many good suggestions. After his father's death, in 1697, he continued his studies, even entering the University of Halle in 1762 to study law, thus carrying out his father's wishes. He also held a position as organist. His natural inclination conquered, however, and the next year he went to Hamburg, which at this time was in the height of its musical prosperity. Here he wrote his Passion Oratorio which was composed for Holy Week. It disappeared for a long time but was discovered a lew years ago, and published by the German Handel Society in 1860. In Hamburg he made the acquaintance of Mattheson, which acquaintance ripened into friendship which was only broken once, and that by a duel, when a broad metal button on Handel's coat probably saved his life. From different sources he had ob- tained money enough to save two hundred ducats, besides repaying money he had borrowed from his mother. With his savings he went to Italy and spent most of the next thirteen years in travel. After a few months' visit in Rome, during the opera season, he went to Florence where he produced his first Italian opera, Rodrigo, which won for him immediate popularity. The leading role was sung by the famous Vittoria Tesi and such was her admiration for the composer that she followed him to Venice, appearing in his opera Agrippina. This was his most successful work up to this time and the audience went wild over it. His return to Rome was welcomed by the Arcadia, a society for the promotion of the arts and sciences, composed of men of genius from all over Europe. Handel, being only twenty-three, was too young to become a member. The following months in Rome formed, probably, the happiest period of his life. He was enthusiastically greeted, drawn into the most intellectual and brilliant society in Italy and devoted to perfecting himself in his art. His composition shows much change, while in Italy, from being dry and stiff, to more natural musical expression and the spontaneous, flowing melody, typical of bright sunshine and southern skies. He also learned the Italian secret of effectively writing for the voice.

Returning to Germany, in 1710, he visited his mother, then sixty years old. Reaching Hanover, he was appointed chapelmaster and accepted the position on condition that he be granted a year's leave of absence, in order to visit England. His first work in London was his opera, Rinaldo, composed in two weeks' time and successfully produced at the Haymarket Theatre, appearing night after night for weeks. It was with much reluctance that he returned to Hanover, where, though his salary was large, the field was limited and he longed for London where opportunities and musical people were plentiful.

In 1712 he again obtained leave of absence, " on condition that he engaged to return within a reasonable time." Only as a visitor did he return to his fatherland again. He found favor with Queen Anne by an ode for her birthday in 1713. She commissioned him to furnish a Te Deum to commemorate the Peace of Utrecht. This work made a great impression and  he was rewarded for it by a life pension of two hundred pounds. The next year brought the sudden death of Queen Anne and made the Elector of Hanover King of England as George I. Naturally, he did not feel very cordial toward his renegade musician. Handel, however, regained his favor by strategy: On the evening of August 22, 1715, as the royal family descended the Thames from Limehouse to Whitehall, a barge followed them which contained an orchestra of strings and wind-instruments playing the famous water music, composed for the occasion. The King was delighted, and when he learned who the composer was, received him with good grace. Now followed a life of ease and happiness among his friends, the distinguished amateur, M. Andrews, and the Earl of Burlington, as whose guest he met all the men of note at that time. About this time Handel returned with the King to Hanover for a visit and he also went to Halle to see his mother. While in Hanover he composed his one German oratorio, The Passion, set to Brockes' words. Upon his return to London he spent three years as chapelmaster to the Duke of Chandos and composed the twelve Chandos Anthems. He also wrote two Te Deums, his English serenata, Acis and Galatea, and his first English oratorio, Esther. In 1720 he went to Dresden looking for singers, by the King's orders, for the Royal Academy of Music, for which he had been appointed director. In Dresden he played at court, before Augustus, Elector of Saxony, receiving one hundred ducats for the performance. He just missed seeing Bach, who arrived in Halle just after his departure.

Handel was associated with Ariosti and with his former rival Buononcini as composers for the Royal Academy, but his fourteen operas in eight years drove the Italians from the field. In December his Italian opera opened with Lotario and during the next four years he furnished six operas. Handel's favor at court created much political opposition which hurt this second operatic enterprise. He made a third and last attempt at opera, leasing Covent Garden, but this venture also proved unsuccessful and in 1738 he closed the theatre, broken financially and ailing in health. A stroke of paralysis lamed one of his hands and indications of insanity appeared. He repaired to Aix-laChapelle, where the baths, in a few months, restored him to partially good health. Returning he composed, between November 15 and December 25, the opera, Faramondo, and the funeral anthem for the death of Queen Caroline.

In the meantime, Heidegger had formed an opera company and for the sake of money, with the debtor's prison staring at him, Handel wrote six more operas, of which Deidamia was the last. He also reluctantly agreed to a benefit concert though he had always disapproved of that sort of begging. It was a great success. The house was crowded, with five hundred people of distinction upon the stage, and the receipts netted about eight hundred pounds. This was a demonstration but was eclipsed when, a month later, a life-size statue of him by Roubilliac was erected at Vauxhall Gardens, the only instance on record of such an honor being paid an artist during his lifetime. For the Society for Indigent Musicians he performed, in 1739, his Alexander's Feast, in 1740, Acis and Galatea, and the next year a series of minor compositions. His oratorio, Esther, had been produced by Bernard Gates, the director of the boys' chorus at the Royal chapel, and Handel performed it himself later. Under this new impulse he composed Deborah and Athaliah. The first performance of the former at the Haymarket was given to an empty house, but it was better appreciated when given later. The latter was given at Oxford University Festival and the title of Doctor was conferred upon Handel. It was with great reluctance that he gave up writing operas. He said that "sacred music was best suited to a man descending in the vale of years."

Now approaches the greatest period of Handel's life, for his oratorios not only brought back his fortune but are his most famous compositions, of which Saul commenced a long series. It was performed early in 1739 and was followed by Israel in Egypt. In 1739 he composed the music to Dryden's Ode to St. Cecilia and the next year appeared the music to Milton's L'Allegro and II Penseroso. . His efforts, however, seemed no longer appreciated and he was thinking of leaving England, when he was requested to visit Dublin by the Duke of Devonshire, then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He composed the Messiah in the incredibly short period of twenty-one days, and dedicated it to the Irish people. Its performance was given to free those languishing in the debtors' prison. He afterwards said of the Hallelujah Chorus, " I did think I did see all heaven before me, and the Great God himself." His tears fell on the paper as he wrote. Dublin was quite a musical center at this time and Handel was received with enthusiasm and given one ovation after another. The Messiah was given in April, 1842, before a crowded audience. After nine months in Dublin, Handel returned to London, where the news of his success had preceded him. His exquisite music had been gradually cultivating the taste of the English people and now his popularity became boundless. The Messiah was first performed there in March, 1743, and the audience was quite carried away with its beauty and when the Hallelujah Chorus began with its " For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth," they all, the King included, sprang to their feet and remained standing until the chorus ended. This incident originated the custom of standing during this chorus. It was performed annually for years, for the benefit of the Foundling Hospital. His next oratorio, Samson, appeared the same year, and it received almost equal favor. Of later oratorios, Judas Maccabaeus alone had equal and lasting success. The oratorios, Semele and Joseph, were also composed in 1743 The next year appeared Belshazzar and Heracles; in 1746, Occasional Oratorios; in 1747, Joshua and Alexander Balus; in 1748, Solomon and Susannah; in 1749, Theodora; in 1750, The Choice of Hercules, and in 1751, Jephthah, the last written wholly with his own hands. Mozart rescored the Messiah, Alexander's Feast, Acis and Galatea, and Ode for St. Cecilia's Day, adding the richer coloring of the modern orchestra. In 1752 Handel was attacked with blindness and an operation was unsuccessful. He did not let his misfortune weigh him down but continued to direct his performances with the aid of his pupil and protege, John Christian Smith. In 1757 he made the final arrangement of the Italian oratorio, The Triumph of Time and Peace. There is a deep significance at Handel's closing his long career with the same work which stands at its beginning, and its title seems almost to symbolize his own life. His last effort was to assist at a performance of the Messiah on April 6, 1759. He was seized with a deadly faintness and never again left his bed. He died on Saturday, April 14, following Good Friday. He was conscious to the last. One of his friends said:   " He died as he lived, a good Christian, with a true sense of his duty to God, and man, and in perfect charity to all the world." He was buried in the south transept of Westminster Abbey, before " a vast concourse of persons of all ranks, not fewer than three thousand in number." He left his score of the Messiah to the Foundling Hospital and his manuscript to his protege, Smith, who in turn, presented them all to George III. They are now in the Musical Library of Buckingham Palace and consist of thirtytwo volumes of operas, twenty-one volumes of oratorios, seven volumes of odes and serenatas, twelve volumes of sacred music, eleven volumes of cantatas and sketches, and five volumes of instrumental music. A smaller collection of original manuscripts is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Handel never married, his art being all in all to him. He was tall and robust, and his movements somewhat clumsy. His features were animated and dignified. He was very outspoken, sometimes profane, and occasionally his temper got the best of him. He was naturally a wit and had a way of making commonplace matters interesting. His determination was unyielding, he was sincerely devout and had a high sense of honor ; and his fidelity to his mother was beautiful His private charities were munificent and he was generous to all public institutions, his philanthropy being of the kind that was always ready to offer help. He iden tified himself with the intellectual life of the English and the creations of their most eminent men. His life might be divided into three parts: up to 1720 was preparatory, from that year until 1737 he was devoted to opera, and from then until his death he was occupied with his real lifework, his oratorios. These hold the same place in music that Shakespeare's plays hold in English drama. It is as a vocal and, above all, as a choral writer that Handel is supreme. He developed the resources of the chorus as no one else ever did.