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Handel And The Politics Of “The Messiah” Essay, Research Paper

Handel, George Frideric

b. Feb. 23, 1685, Halle, Saxony [Germany]

d. April 14, 1759, London, Eng.


German-born English composer of the late Baroque era, noted

particularly for his operas, oratorios, and instrumental compositions.

He wrote the most famous of all oratorios, the Messiah (1741), and is

also known for such occasional pieces as Water Music (1717) and

Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749).


The son of a barber-surgeon, Handel showed a marked gift for music

and became a pupil in Halle of the composer Friedrich W. Zachow,

learning the principles of keyboard performance and composition

from him. His father died when Handel was 11, but his education had

been provided for, and in 1702 he enrolled as a law student at the University of Halle.

He also became organist of the Reformed (Calvinist) Cathedral in Halle, but he served

for only one year before going north to Hamburg, where greater opportunities awaited

him. In Hamburg, Handel joined the violin section of the opera orchestra. He also took

over some of the duties of harpsichordist, and early in 1705 he presided over the

premiere in Hamburg of his first opera, Almira.

Handel spent the years 1706-10 traveling in Italy, where he met many of the greatest

Italian musicians of the day, including Arcangelo Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti and

his son Domenico. He composed many works in Italy, including two operas, numerous

Italian solo cantatas (vocal compositions), Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno (1707)

and another oratorio, the serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (1708), and some Latin (i.e.,

Roman Catholic) church music. His opera Agrippina enjoyed a sensational success at its

premiere in Venice in 1709.

Handel’s years in Italy greatly influenced the development of his musical style. His fame

had spread throughout Italy, and his mastery of the Italian opera style now made him

an international figure. In 1710 he was appointed Kapellmeister to the elector of

Hanover, the future King George I of England, and later that year Handel journeyed to

England. In 1711 his opera Rinaldo was performed in London and was greeted so

enthusiastically that Handel sensed the possibility of continuing popularity and

prosperity in England. In 1712 he went back to London for the production of his operas

Il pastor fido and Teseo. In 1713 he won his way into royal favour by his Ode for the

Queen’s Birthday and the Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate in celebration of the Peace of

Utrecht, and he was granted an annual allowance of ?200 by Queen Anne.

Recognized by prominent members of both the English aristocracy and the

intelligentsia, Handel was in no hurry to return to Hanover. Soon he had no need to do

so, for on the death of Queen Anne in 1714, the elector George Louis became King

George I of England. In 1718 Handel became director of music to the Duke of Chandos,

for whom he composed the 12 Chandos Anthems and the English masque Acis and

Galatea, among other works. Another masque, Haman and Mordecai, was to be the

effective starting point for the English oratorio.

Except for a few visits to the European continent, Handel spent the rest of his life in

England. In 1726 he became a British subject, which enabled him to be appointed a

composer of the Chapel Royal. In this capacity he wrote much music, including the

Coronation Anthems for George II in 1727 and the Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline 10

years later.

From 1720 until 1728 the operas at the King’s Theatre in London were staged by the

Royal Academy of Music, and Handel composed the music for most of them. Among

those of the 1720s were Floridante (1721), Ottone (1723), Giulio Cesare (1724),

Rodelinda (1725), and Scipione (1726). From 1728, after the sensation caused by John

Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (which satirized serious opera), the future of opera in the Italian

style became increasingly uncertain in England. It went into decline for a variety of

reasons, one of them being the impatience of the English with a form of entertainment

in an unintelligible language sung by artists of whose morals they disapproved. But

despite the vagaries of public taste, Handel went on composing operas until 1741, by

which time he had written more than 40 such works. As the popularity of opera

declined in England, oratorio became increasingly popular. The revivals in 1732 of

Handel’s masques Acis and Galatea and Haman and Mordecai (renamed Esther) led to

the establishment of the English oratorio–a large musical composition for solo voices,

chorus, and orchestra, without acting or scenery, and usually dramatizing a story from

the Bible in English-language lyrics. Handel first capitalized on this form in 1733 with

Deborah and Athalia.

Handel also continued to comanage an Italian opera company in London despite many

difficulties. Throughout his London career he had suffered competition not only from

rival composers but also from rival opera houses in a London that could barely support

even one Italian opera in addition to its English theatres. Finally, in 1737, his company

went bankrupt and he himself suffered what appears to have been a mild stroke. After

a course of treatment at Aix-la-Chapelle, France, he was restored to health and went

on to compose the Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline (1737) and two of his most

celebrated oratorios, Saul and Israel in Egypt, both of which were performed in 1739.

He also wrote the Twelve Grand Concertos, Opus 6, and helped establish the Fund for

the Support of Decayed Musicians (now the Royal Society of Musicians).

Handel was by this time at the height of his powers, and the year 1741 saw the

composition of his greatest oratorio, Messiah, and its inspired successor, Samson.

Messiah was given its first performance in Dublin on April 13, 1742, and created a deep

impression. Handel’s works of the next three years included the oratorios Joseph and

His Brethren (first performed 1744) and Belshazzar (1745), the secular oratorios Semele

(1743) and Hercules (1745), and the Dettingen Te Deum (1743), celebrating the English

victory over the French at the Battle of Dettingen. Handel had by this time made

oratorio and large-scale choral works the most popular musical forms in England. He

had created for himself a new public among the rising middle classes, who would have

turned away in moral indignation from the Italian opera but who were quite ready to

be edified by a moral tale from the Bible, set to suitably dignified and, by now, rather

old-fashioned music. Even during his lifetime Handel’s music was recognized as a

reflection of the English national character, and his capacity for realizing the common

mood was nowhere better shown than in the Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749), with

which he celebrated the peace of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. Handel now began to

experience trouble with his sight. He managed with great difficulty to finish the last of

his oratorios, Jephtha, which was performed at Covent Garden Theatre, London, in

1752. He kept his interest in musical activities alive until the end. After his death on

April 14, 1759, he was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.


Comprehensive popular biographies are Percy M. Young, Handel, rev. ed. (1965,

reissued 1979); and Jonathan Keates, Handel: The Man and His Music (1985). Paul

Henry Lang, George Frideric Handel (1966, reprinted 1977), is a monumental study.

Documentary biographies include Otto Erich Deutsch, Handel (1954, reprinted 1974);

and H.C. Robbins Landon, Handel and His World (1984). Christopher Hogwood, Handel

(1985), includes a detailed chronological table.

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