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History Of Music:
George Frederic Handel
Joseph Haydn
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Ludwig Van Beethoven
The Romantic Composers
Development Of The Piano
Frederic Chopin
Programme Music
Franz Liszt
Famous Operas And Their Composers
Italian Opera
French Opera
German Opera
Wagner And His Music Dramas
Tristan And Isolde

George Frederic Handel (1685-1750)

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

The history of music in the eighteenth century contains two names of great renown. Bach and Handel were born in the same year and in towns not far distant. Both were men of unusual strength of character, composers of the greatest ability, able organists, players of the violin and clavichord; and each died totally blind. But, strangely enough, the two never met and their lives present an absolute contrast to one another.

Bach never went outside his own country, was not widely known, nor in favor with the nobility; his compositions brought him but small remuneration and he probably never heard them well performed. Handel, on the other hand, traveled considerably and became well known throughout Europe. His friends included many of influence in royal circles, and he was, generally speaking, well paid for his writing. "It is impossible to compare these men. Each was strong in his individual way; each composed works which will always be regarded as masterpieces; but these masterpieces are so unlike, it is so impossible to set them side by side for comparison, that we are forced-and happily-not to compare them, but to accept them as individual expressions of two unlike minds."

George Frederic Handel was born at Halle, in February of 1685. His father, a barber-surgeon, wished his son to become a lawyer and was not at all in sympathy with the lad's musical ambitions, but in spite of all obstacles he learned something of clavichord playing.

When George was seven years old his father went on a journey to visit a relative who was in the service of the Duke of Saxe Weissenfels. The boy begged to be taken, but was refused. When the coach started he ran behind and no words could turn him from his purpose. By and by his father, seeing he could not be driven back, allowed him to ride in the coach to the palace. There he made friends with some of the musicians in the Duke's chapel and one day was allowed to play the organ. So wonderful was his skill that the Duke, overhearing the playing, sent for the boy's father and urged upon him the necessity of encouraging such genius. The reluctant surgeon finally yielded and, on their return, young Handel became a pupil of Zachau, a famous organist of Halle, under whom he studied composition, organ, harpsichord, violin and hautbois (oboe).

At the end of three years, Zachau declared that the boy knew more than he himself did, and sent him to Berlin. There his ability as organist brought him to the notice of the Elector, who offered him a position at his court, but to this Handel's father objected. The boy returned home and once more took up his work ;: ith Zachau.

The next year-1697-his father died and it became necessary for Handel to accept what employment offered in order to earn a livelihood. As organist in one of the Halle churches he received only a small salary, but gained a large experience in conducting musical services. He left in six years for Hamburg, where he was given a place in a theatre orchestra as violinist. At that time Hamburg was a famous center of music and there Handel was able to become acquainted with great compositions and to mingle with the best writers of the day. He himself produced two operas-"Almira" and "Nero"-before he was twenty. Neither were of lasting worth, but they brought the young composer favorably before the public.

His reputation as an opera writer being established, he went to Italy, where he gave serious attention to his composing and produced several operas and much sacred music. The Italians have always led the world in the exquisite beauty of their melody, but at that time their opera was little more than a concert where singers might show their marvelous vocal feats. The dramatic element was sacrificed to that of brilliant singing and, in consequence, the opera became an empty form, in favor chiefly with the nobility, who desired first of all to be entertained.

There is no trace of reform in Handel's operas. He, too, catered to the public taste and we note the effects of the strong Italian influence in his writing. Undoubtedly his were much more perfect in their artistic finish and subject matter than were the operas of his contemporaries; but he belongs to the eighteenth-century Italian school and, although some of his arias are still heard upon the concert stage, his operas have vanished forever.

In 1710 he returned to Germany and was again offered the position of capell-meister (chapel master) to the Elector of Hanover. He accepted on condition that he should first be allowed to visit England; and to this the Elector agreed. Italian opera was very popular in London at this time, and Handel was there recognized as a master. His opera, "Rinaldo," was written in fourteen days to meet the demand, and, though of short life, was received with great applause. In six months he was obliged to return to his work in Hanover, but his London success had spoiled him for his duties in the Elector's court. In 1712 he again went to England, this time to stay. When Queen Anne died, in 1714, the Elector was called to reign in England as King George the First. Very naturally he looked with disfavor upon his truant director of music, but, through the intervention of a mutual friend, Handel regained his favor. His wonderful energy and genius, aided by the king's support, insured his success. Later he became chapel master to the Duke of Chandos, one of the wealthiest of England's noblemen, and with him Handel was given wonderful opportunities to de velop his ideas. At this time he composed some of his best works, among them his first English oratorio, "Esther," and "Acis and Galatea."

He had no desire to break away from the opera, and in 1720 became director of Italian opera for the Royal Academy of Music. Previous to Handel's arrival in England there had been an effort to create an English school of opera, the foundations of which were the "masque," a dramatic entertainment consisting of dialogues, dances, songs and choruses. Henry Percival had given the new movement his able support, but after his death Italian opera gained the ascendency.

Although Handel at first had great success as Director of the Opera, he soon made many enemies. He was very positive, haughty and lordly in manner and entered into many a quarrel with his singers and actors. Grove tells of his illtemper when acting as director before a royal audience: "Even when he was conducting concerts for the Prince of Wales, if the ladies of the court talked instead of listening, his rage was uncontrollable, and sometimes carried him to the length of swearing and calling names... whereupon the gentle Princess would say to the offenders, `Hush, hush! Handel is angry.' It is to the credit of the prince and princess that they respected the real worth of the master too much to be seriously offended by his manners."

Factions soon sprang up, a rival company was established and Handel was forced into bankruptcy. It was not this alone that turned his attention toward the oratorio; his work in this field began years before he left the opera. The church authorities would not permit operas to be performed during Lent, and unless something was given in their place, great financial loss would result. To meet this demand he produced oratorios, and they were cordially received by all classes. So we see that it was through practical motives that the great Handel took up the writing of religious forms.

The oratorio is not church music. For its origin we must turn to Italy, where the form was created. Dramatic music is divided into two branches, one being the opera and the other the oratorio. There are religious operas and dramatic oratorios. In the opera the atmosphere and significance of the drama is made manifest by means of costumes, scenery and action; in the oratorio this is, in a way, supplied by means of the chorus, which sets forth the general mood and moral purpose of the text. In its earliest period the oratorio was staged as an opera, but in time it was not deemed appropriate to present religious subjects in this way. The Old Testament has furnished subjects for many oratorios; its characters and stories are so familiar and simple, that its narratives are well adapted for musical settings.

By "church music" is meant only that music which has been written for or has grown up in the church; and, although parts of an oratorio may be fitted into a religious service, it could not be given there as an entirety.

We have seen that it was not for religious reasons that Handel turned his attention toward the writing of oratorios, but, nevertheless, into them he poured all his fervid spirit for the moral uplifting of mankind. Although he derived his idea from the Italian form, he was never hampered by its limitations, nor did he confuse the opera style with that of the oratorio. He brought the form to a height which has never been surpassed, and may be said to have accomplished for the oratorio what Bach did for the passion.

It is in his choruses that Handel excels. By means of the simplest devices he produces truly magnificent and thrilling effects. It is to the chorus that the grandeur of an oratorio is due; no other achievement in musical art can produce such an overwhelming effect. Noise should not be confused with grandeur : some of Handel's most inspiring passages are the simplest-as in the Halleluiah chorus. He is at his best in his choral works; perhaps most perfectly showing his powers as a chorus writer in his "Israel in Egypt."

Probably the most beloved of all oratorios is his "Messiah." In the transition period when his operatic career proved a failure, and before he had established the oratorio, I3andel was called to Dublin to bring out some of his compositions for the relief of suffering Irish prisoners, especially those imprisoned for debt. This appealed to him greatly; and at once he set about to write a new oratorio, the "Messiah." In twenty-four days it was completed and ready for performance! It is most marvelous to consider the genius of a man who could produce such a work of art in so short a space of time. True, it bears certain defects as a result of this headlong haste, but it is wonderfully composed and has stood the test of time.

Its Dublin performance, in 1742, brought the desired financial results, . and the following year it was given in London, This was a notable occasion: the king was present and was so overwhelmed with the majesty of the Halleluiah chorus that he rose, and of course the whole audience _followed his example; thus originated the custom that is perpetuated today.

Handel's greatest works were produced after he was fifty. The "Messiah," written in 1741, was followed by other oratorios in rapid succession. "Samson" was produced in 1742, "Judus Macabeus" in 1746, "Joshua" in 1747, "Solomon" in I748 and "Jephtha" three years later. These were successful in every sense and were given under the composer's direction, even after his blindness came upon him. He died suddenly, in 1759, and, being a naturalized English citizen, was given a place of honor in Westminster Abbey.

When we listen to an oratorio by Handel, we do not hear the orchestration of the composer himself. In his times, the composer merely indicated a figured bass, from which the orchestra provided its own harmonies. Today the instruments are so varied, many of the early eighteenth century having been discarded and others reinforced, that it is necessary to have a complete rescoring of these old works.

Handel created no new "school" of music and has not influenced modern writers as Bach has done. Many of his instrumental compositions are studied today, but they do not reflect his best work. He has been accused of plagiarizing, but in his times the appropriating of others' themes was not considered musical theft. Between contemporary composers there is often a decided similarity of thought, and it is difficult to say just where coincidence of ideas leaves off and musical plagiarism begins. Undoubtedly Handel used the material of others freely, but it is due to the fact that the period in which he wrote did not lay stress on the necessity of originality of musical ideas, rather than any lack of creative ability on the part of the composer.

Handel was a man greatly to be admired: he was of irreproachable moral character, independent in spirit, true to the best in a noble nature, and a master of his art.


Vocal works: Forty-seven operas, twenty-two oratorios, six miscellaneous pieces, seven odes, serenatas, anthems, hymns and other religious works, duets and songs. Instrumental: Preludes, fugues, dances, suites and concertos.

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