Happy Birthday Handel
February 16, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
In my family there are many people who love music, but I am the only professional musician in the bunch, as far as I know. I grew up listening to all kinds of music—my father has been collecting records since he was a kid—and my parents gave me the opportunity to take piano lessons and dance classes. Although I didn’t have formal music classes until high school, I was exposed to lots of musical experiences, and I enjoyed them immensely. The fact that I chose to pursue music as a career shouldn’t be a shock to anyone, but not every family is like mine.
George Friedrich Handel—a man who would become one of the Baroque period’s most important and influential composers—was actively discouraged from following his passion for music. His father, Georg Händel, was a barber-surgeon who was employed at the court of Saxe-Weissenfels, a duchy of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Margraviate of Brandenburg, a sovereign state of the HRE. (“Händel,” with the umlaut, is the traditional spelling, but in England G.F. Handel omitted it from his signature.) The elder Händel expected his son to practice law, but young Handel’s affinity for music became apparent early on. And his determination to learn music showed itself early as well. In a biography of Handel that was published a year after his death, author John Mainwaring recounts the story of young G.F. Handel sneaking a clavichord into the family’s attic and practicing when everyone was asleep.
That Handel would find some way to subvert his father’s wishes and become a composer rather than a lawyer seems predestined, in hindsight, but it must have been quite the family struggle at the time. The intervention of the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels probably tipped the scales in music’s favor, at least in the early days. On a visit to the court, Handel played the organ, and he displayed such skill that the Duke convinced Georg Händel to allow his son to take music lessons. The teacher that Handel ended up with, F.W. Zachow, encouraged his young pupil to study the scores of German and Italian masters and to write pieces emulating their styles. From Zachow, Handel took organ, harpsichord, and violin lessons, and he also learned harmony, counterpoint, and composition. Handel did study law for a brief period in the early 1700s, but soon turned his attention fully to music, first taking a job as a church organist and later as an instrumentalist at an orchestra in Hamburg. By 1705, Handel’s first operas were put on stage. Almira, one of those operas, has been described like this: “the style is mixed, drawing on the French tradition for the dances and Italian comedy for the servant Tabarco…as well as the stiff gait of the north German cantata.” In order to find his true voice, Handel needed to visit Italy.
In 1706, Handel went to Florence and within a year, his first Italian opera, Rodrigo, was produced. In 1707 Handel’s first oratorio premiered. Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno featured a libretto by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili. While in Italy, Handel lived and worked in both Rome and Florence and had occasion to make the acquaintance of many of the important Italian composers of the day. He met Arcangelo Corelli, Pasquini, Vivaldi, Albioni, and the two famous Scarlattis. Domenico Scarlatti even engaged Handel in a keyboard contest at the palace of Pietro Ottoboni in Venice.
Aspects of Handel’s style changed dramatically during his years in Italy. Probably the most important change emerged in Handel’s melodies. They became not only more suitable for the voice, but more beautiful as well. His vocal style was thoroughly operatic, even when composing oratorios and cantatas. By the time he left Italy in 1710 for Hanover, Handel had learned a great deal and was ready for the next chapter in his life.
Appointed Kapellmeister to the elector of Hanover, Handel’s first order of business was to take an eight-month trip to London. That probably seems like an odd thing to do, but Handel made it a condition of his appointment. The elector was heir to the British throne, so he likely felt comfortable letting his new Kapellmeister travel to freely. There Handel wrote music for Queen Anne’s court, but his real ambition was to write an opera for a new opera house: the Queen’s Theater in Haymarket. Handel scored his first big success in London with Rinaldo, an Italian opera that premiered on February 24, 1711. He left London a few months later, intending to return as soon as possible. In preparation, he started in earnest to learn English and he composed a cantata using English poetry. In late 1712, the elector gave him permission to go back to London on the condition that he return to Hanover “within a reasonable time.”
Handel decided instead to take up permanent residence in London.
Handel’s biographer told the story that the elector—once he ascended to the British throne in August of 1714—showed displeasure with his former Kapellmeister. As the legend goes, Handel’s brilliant music smoothed things over. But there is little evidence to suggest that Handel was ever in trouble with the new King of England. In fact, Handel had been getting 200 pounds a year as a pension from Queen Anne, and King George I doubled that. Handel composed operas, oratorios, and instrumental music, and was a friend to the monarchy. His fame was growing, and he was prolific, although he had a habit of self-borrowing and reworking old material.
The Italian opera was popular in London for years. The Queen’s Theater in Haymarket saw the premiere of more than two dozen operas by Handel between 1711 and 1739. But that kind of popularity is unsustainable, and the tastes of Londoners shifted to English operas and oratorios. Handel excelled at writing the latter, so by 1741 Handel was done with opera. Handel’s oratorios—including his 1742 popular masterpiece, Messiah—formed the bulk of his output in his last decade and a half.
Music students know about Messiah, but it’s really just the beginning of Handel’s last incredible chapter. He came from a family that didn’t value music, but he built a musical empire anyway. It was his talent and ambition, but it was also his will that made it possible. February 23rd will be Handel’s 329th birthday. Celebrate his musical legacy by listening to Water Music or Rinaldo. Or sing the Hallelujah chorus. After all, if Handel hadn’t been so determined to play music instead of studying law, the world would have missed out on some great music.