Though Handel was born in the same year as another legend, Bach is regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Baroque era, with some works being celebrated even now, such as Messiah, Water Music and Music for Royal Fireworks.
Born in 1685 in Halle, Germany, George Frideric Handel, despite the resistance of his father to the son’s passion for music, made his debut as an opera composer with Almira at the age of 20. He went on to produce several operas with the Royal Academy of Music in England before forming the New Royal Academy of Music when he was 42.
When Italian operas fell out of fashion, he started composing oratorios, including his most famous, Messiah.
Conductor Jane Glover’s 2018 book, Handel in London: The Making of a Genius is the result of her four-decade long career in performing Handel. In the foreword to the book ‘Glover notes the certain kinship she feels with Handel. Beyond hearing her first – and life-changing – performance of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ at age 9, performing Handel’s music has “occupied a sizeable portion” of her career.’ No wonder, his 1741 work, ‘Messiah’, is among the most famous oratorios in history.
Hallelujah’ chorus, from Handel’s Messia
When Handel moved away from operas to Oratorios, it became the craze of London. Think of it: Handel produced more than 14 concerts made up primarily of oratorios in one year viz. 1735. Six years later Handel was commissioned to write a new oratorio based on a biblical libretto assembled by an art patron, which eventually gave birth to Handel’s most revered oratorio, Messiah, which made its debut at the New Music Hall in Dublin in 1742.
The period from 1743 to 1757 saw a creative outpouring with Samson, Semele, Joseph and His Brethren, Hercules, Belshazzar, Occasional Oratorio, Judas Maccabeus, Joshua, Alexander Balus, Susanna , Solomon, Theodora, The Choice of Hercules, Jeptha and The Triumph of Time and Truth.
The Hornpipe from Handel’s Water Music (HWV 349)
Handel didn’t confine himself to oratorios; actually his concerti grossi, anthems and orchestral pieces were highly acclaimed. Notable among them were Water Music, Coronation Anthems, Trio Sonatas op. 2, Trio Sonatas op. 5, Concerto Grosso op. 6 and Music for Royal Fireworks. One of his four coronation anthems, Zadok the Priest, which was composed in 1727 for the coronation of George II has been performed at every subsequent British coronation.
Considered as Stanley Kubrick’s most ‘classical’ movie, ‘Barry London’, the opening “Sarabande,” by George Frideric Handel, is used evocatively; about which Kubrick said, “I actually heard this played on a guitar. It seemed the nearest thing you could do to [Ennio] Morricone and still not seem like a terrible anomaly in the story.” Throughout the movie, Kubrick draws on music of the era to enhance the stately elegance of the setting, or bring dramatic tension.
Sarabande in D minor HWV 437
Handel had opted for British citizenship early in life. Handel is among the select composers who was accorded the status of a classic composer in the UK in his own lifetime, without experiencing any diminution in his image. Since he democratized music, his popular oratorios, songs, and instrumental works had a social significance that complemented their purely musical importance. Essentially, Handel’s music became an indispensable part of England’s national culture. Gradually in Germany too, interest in his music spread in the late 18th century and re-established Handel as a German composer of the first rank.
The Baroque composer and organist died at the age of 74 in London. In life and death, Handel came out as a generous man. Having never married or fathered children, his will divided his assets among his servants and several charities, among others. Thoughtfully enough, Handel even donated the money to pay for his own funeral.