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George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel in 1741

(1685 - 1759)

George Frideric Handel (February 23 1685 - April 14, 1759) was one of the greatest composers of the late baroque period and, during his lifetime, perhaps the most internationally famous of all musicians. Handel was in Hallé, to a family of no musical distinction. His own musical talent, however, manifested itself so clearly that before his tenth birthday he began to receive, from a local organist, the only formal musical instruction he would ever have. Although his first position, beginning just after his 17th birthday, was as church organist in Hallé, Handel's musical predilections lay elsewhere. Thus, in 1703 he traveled to Hamburg, the operatic center of Germany. Here, in 1704, he composed his own first opera, Almira, which achieved great success the following year. Once again, however, Handel soon felt the urge to move on, and his inclinations led him to Italy, the birthplace of operatic style. He stopped first at Florence in the autumn of 1706. In the spring and summer of 1707 and 1708 he traveled to Rome, enjoying the patronage of both the nobility and the clergy, and in the late spring of 1707 he made an additional short trip to Naples. In Italy Handel composed operas, oratorios, and many small secular cantatas. He ended his Italian sojourn with the spectacular success of his fifth opera, Agrippina (1709), in Venice.

Handel left Italy for a position as court composer and conductor in Hannover, Germany, where he arrived in the spring of 1710. As had been the case in Hallé, however, he did not hold this position for long. By the end of 1710 Handel had left for London, where with Rinaldo (1711), he once again scored an operatic triumph. After returning to Hannover he was granted permission for a second short trip to London, from which, however, he never returned. Handel was forced to face his truancy when in 1714 the elector at Hannover, his former employer, became King George I of England. The reconciliation of these two men may well have occurred, as has often been said, during a royal party on the River Thames in 1715, during which the F Major suite from Handel's Water Music was probably played. Under the patronage of the duke of Chandos, he composed his oratorio Esther and the 11 Chandos Anthems for choir and string orchestra (1717-20). By 1719 Handel had won the support of the king to start the Royal Academy of Music for performances of opera, which presented some of Handel's greatest operas: Radamisto (1720), Giulio Cesare (1724), Tamerlano (1724), and Rodelinda (1725). In 1727 Handel became a naturalized British subject; in 1728 the academy collapsed. He formed a new company the following year. Forced to move to another theater by the Opera of the Nobility, a rival company, in 1734, he continued to produce opera until 1737 when both houses failed. Handel suffered a stroke and retired to Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) to recuperate.

In 1738 Handel, as determined as ever, began yet another operatic endeavor, which ended with his last opera, Deidamia, in 1741. During the 1730s, however, the most important directions taken by Handel were, first, the composition of English dramatic oratorios, notably Athalia (1733) and Saul (1739), and, second, the surge of instrumental music used in conjunction with the oratorios, including some of Handel's greatest concertos – the solo concertos of Opus 4 (1736, five for organ and one for harp) and the 12 concerti grossi of Opus 6 (1739). In 1742 Messiah, the work for which he is best known was first performed in Dublin. Handel continued composing oratorios at the rate of about two a year, including such masterworks as Samson (1743) and Solomon (1749), until 1751, when his eyesight began to fail. Handel died in London on April 14, 1759; the last musical performance he heard, on April 6, was his own Messiah.

Throughout his life Handel avoided the rigorous contrapuntal techniques of his compatriot and exact contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach and achieved his effects through the simplest of means, trusting always his own innate musicianship. The music of both composers, however, sums up the age in which they lived. After them, opera took a different path; the favorite baroque genres of chamber and orchestral music, trio sonata and concerto grosso, were largely abandoned, and the development of the symphony orchestra and the pianoforte led into realms uncharted by the baroque masters. Thus, their influence cannot be found in specific examples. Rather, Handel's legacy lies in the dramatic power and lyrical beauty inherent in all his music. His operas move from the rigid use of conventional schemes toward a more flexible and dramatic treatment of recitative, arioso, aria, and chorus. His ability to build large scenes around a single character was further extended in the dramatic scenas of composers such as Wolfgang Mozart and the Italian Gioachino Rossini. Handel's greatest gift to posterity was undoubtedly the creation of the dramatic oratorio genre, partly out of existing operatic traditions and partly by force of his own musical imagination. Without question, the oratorios of both the Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn and the German composer Felix Mendelssohn owe a large debt to those of Handel. He was one of the first composers to have a biography written of him (1760), to have centennial celebrations of his birth (1784-86), and to have a complete edition of his music published (40 volumes, 1787-97) – Ludwig van Beethoven cherished his set. Although today, as in the 19th century, Handel is best known for only a few of his works, such as Water Music and Messiah, more and more attempts are being made to bring his other compositions, especially his operas, to the public acquaintance. Handel's rich and unique musical genius deserves to be remembered in the extraordinary fullness of its entirety.

Handel's signature

Recommended Recordings

Acis and Galatea (oratorio)

Oratorio "Acis and Galatea"; Cantata "Look down, harmonious saint"/Hyperion CDA66361/2
Claron McFadden (soprano), John Mark Ainsley & Rogers Covey-Crump (tenors), Michael George (bass), Robert King/The King's Consort


Arias for Cuzzoni/Harmonia Mundi HMU907036
Lisa Saffer (soprano), Nicholas McGegan/Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
Arias for Montagnana/Harmonia Mundi HMU907016
David Thomas (bass), Nicholas McGegan/Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
Arias for Senesino/Harmonia Mundi HMU905183
Drew Minter (countertenor), Nicholas McGegan/Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
Various Arias/EMI CDC7491792
Kathleen Battle (soprano), Neville Marriner/Academy of St. Martin-In-The-Fields

Concerti Grossi Op. 3

6 Concerti Grossi Op. 3, HWV 312-317/Archiv 413727-2
Trevor Pinnock/The English Concert
6 Concerti Grossi Op. 3, HWV 312-317/Hungaroton HCD12463
Janos Rolla/Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra
6 Concerti Grossi Op. 3, HWV 312-317/L'Oiseau-Lyre 421729-2
Christopher Hogwood/Handel & Haydn Society

Core Repertoire - Start Here! Concerti Grossi Op. 6

4 Concerti Grossi Op. 6 #1-4, HWV 319-322/Archiv 410897-2
Trevor Pinnock/The English Concert
4 Concerti Grossi Op. 6 #5-8, HWV 323-326/Archiv 410898-2
Trevor Pinnock/The English Concert
4 Concerti Grossi Op. 6 #9-12, HWV 327-330/Archiv 410899-2
Trevor Pinnock/The English Concert
4 Concerti Grossi Op. 6 #1-4, HWV 319-322/RCA Red Seal 7895-2-RC
Guildhall String Ensemble
4 Concerti Grossi Op. 6 #5-8, HWV 323-326/RCA Red Seal 7895-2-RC
Guildhall String Ensemble
4 Concerti Grossi Op. 6 #9-12, HWV 327-330/RCA Red Seal 7895-2-RC
Guildhall String Ensemble
12 Concerti Grossi Op. 6, HWV 319-330/L'Oiseau-Lyre 436845-2
Christopher Hogwood/Handel & Haydn Society

Concertos for Organ Op. 4 & 7

6 Concertos Op. 4, HWV 289-294/Archiv 413465-2
Simon Preston (organ), Trevor Pinnock/The English Concert
6 Concertos Op. 7, HWV 306-311/Archiv 413468-2
Simon Preston (organ), Trevor Pinnock/The English Concert
12 Concertos, Op. 4 & 7/Teldec Das Alte Werk 4509-91188-2
Herbert Tachezi, Nikolaus Harnoncourt/Concentus Musicus Wien

Concerto for Organ "Cuckoo and Nightingale"

4 Concertos: "Cuckoo and Nightingale",Op. 4 #1 & 4 and Op. 7 #1/Archiv 419634-2
Simon Preston (organ), Trevor Pinnock/The English Concert

Harmonious Blacksmith for Harpsichord (also see Suites)

Suite #5 "The Harmonious Blacksmith", HWV 430, etc./Nonesuch 979037-2
Igor Kipnis (harpsichord)

Core Repertoire - Start Here! Messiah (oratorio)

Oratorio "Messiah" (complete)/Telarc CD-80093
Kaaren Erickson, Sylvia McNair, Alfreda Hodgson, Jon Humphrey, Richard Stilwell, Robert Shaw/Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
Oratorio "Messiah" (complete)/Archiv 423630-2
Arleen Augér, Anne Sofie von Otter, Michael Chance, Howard Crook, Trevor Pinnock/The English Concert & Chorus
Oratorio "Messiah" (complete)/London 414396-2
Te Kanawa, Gjevan, Lewis, Howell, Georg Solti/Chicago Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
Oratorio "Messiah" (complete with alternate movements and choruses)/Harmonia Mundi HMU 907050.52
Lorraine Hunt, Janet Williams, Patricia Spence, Drew Minter, Jeffrey Thomas, William Parker, Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & U.C. Berkeley Chamber Chorus
Oratorio "Messiah" (selected Arias & Choruses)/Telarc CD-80103
Kaaren Erickson, Sylvia McNair, Alfreda Hodgson, Jon Humphrey, Richard Stilwell, Robert Shaw/Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
Oratorio "Messiah" (selected Arias & Choruses)/Archiv 427664-2
Arleen Augér, Anne Sofie von Otter, Michael Chance, Howard Crook, Trevor Pinnock/The English Concert & Chorus

Operas (Flavio, Orlando, Tamerlano)

Opera "Flavio"/Harmonia Mundi HMC901312.13
Jeffrey Gall, Derik Lee Ragin, Lena Lootens, Bernarda Fink, René Jacobs/Ensemble 415
Opera "Orlando"/L'Oiseau-Lyre 430845-2
Kirkby, Bpwman, Thomas, Auger, Robbin, Christopher Hogwood/Academy of Ancient Music
Opera "Tamerlano"/Erato 2292-45408-2
Argenta, Findley, Ragin, Chance, Robson, Schirrer, John Eliot Gardiner/English Baroque Soloists

Royal Fireworks Music

"Royal Fireworks Music" (w/ Water Music)/L'Oiseau-Lyre 400059-2
Christopher Hogwood/Academy of Ancient Music
"Royal Fireworks Music" (w/ Holst Suites)/Telarc CD-80038
Fredrick Fennell/Cleveland Symphonic Winds
"Royal Fireworks Music" (w/ Overtures)/Philips 434154-2
John Eliot Gardiner/English Baroque Soloists

Solomon (oratorio)

Oratorio "Solomon"/Philips 412612-2
Watkinson, Argenta, Hendricks, Rolfe Johnson, John Eliot Gardiner/English Baroque Soloists & Monteverdi Choir

Sonatas for Flute or Recorder & Harpsichord Op. 1

3 Sonatas Op. 1 #1, 5 & 9; "Halle" Sonatas/Accent ACC9180D
, Barthold Kuijken (flute), Wieland Kuijken (viola da gamba), Robert Kohnen (harpsichord)
3 Sonatas Op. 1 #2, 4 & 7; Recorder Concerto in F Major/Hungaroton HCD12375
Laszlo Czidra (recorder), Jano Rolla/Liszt Ferenc Chamber Orchestra

Suites for Harpsichord

8 Suites #1-8 (Book I), HWV 426-433/Archiv 427170-2
Colin Tilney (harpsichord)
5 Suites #2, 3 & 5-7 (Book I), HWV 427,428,430-432/Harmonia Mundi HMC90447
Kenneth Gilbert (harpsichord)

Susanna (oratorio)

Oratorio "Susanna"/Harmonia Mundi HMU907030.32
Lorraine Hunt (soprano), Drew Minter (countertenor), Jill Feldman (soprano), William Parker (baritone), Jeffrey Parker (tenor), David Thomas (bass), Nicholas McGegan/Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra

Trio Sonatas Op. 2 & 5

6 Trio Sonatas Op. 2/Harmonia Mundi HMC901379
London Baroque
7 Trio Sonatas Op. 5/Harmonia Mundi HMC901389
London Baroque

Core Repertoire - Start Here! Water Music

"Water Music" (complete), HWV 347/Naxos 8.550109
Bohdan Warchal/Capella Istropolitana
3 Suites "Water Music", HWV 348-350/Archiv 410525-2
Simon Standage & Elizabeth Wilcock (violins), Trevor Pinnock/The English Concert
3 Suites "Water Music", HWV 348-350/CBC Enterprises SMCD5032
Mario Bernardi/CBC Vancouver Orchestra
Suite "Water Music" (selections), HWV 348/Reference Recordings RR-13CD