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Georg Friedrich Handel

Handel's Operas


He has undoubtedly composed one of the most recognizable choral pieces. The familiar chorus of piercing sopranos balanced by earthquake-like basses has been engraved into the minds of millions, whether they be true aficionados of classical music or head-banging members of the grunge wave. This broad and timeless appeal is sufficient proof of his gifts as a musician.

He was born Georg Friedrich Handel on February 23, 1685 in Halle, Germany. The late 17th century was a time of scientific and cultural flowering. The Jannsen Brothers built a prototype of the first microscope, Shakespeare's Hamlet was performed theatrically for the first time, John Smith established the first English colony in Jamestown, Virginia, Walter Raleigh was executed, construction began on the Taj Mahal, and Harvard and Princeton Universities were founded. As a child, Handel became the assistant organist at Hallé Cathedral. There he was under the tutelage of Friedrich Wilhelm Zachau, a less famous but nevertheless excellent Baroque composer. Shortly after the turn of the century, Handel moved to Hamburg. It was a principal musical city in Germany and provided a solid foundation for Handel's growing career. In Hamburg, Handel composed two operas, Almira and Nero, both in 1705.

A year later, Handel began a four-year tour of Italy, during which he visited Florence, Venice, Rome, and Naples. It was at this time that he wrote his first oratorio, an extended dramatic work on a religious theme, called Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno in 1707. Handel followed with another oratorio in 1708, La Resurrezione, and completed the opera Agrippina in 1709.

Following his stay in Italy, Handel returned to his native country. Over the next two years he traveled twice to England. During his first visit, the opera Rinaldo was successfully staged. Finding London to his liking, he stayed and made it his permanent home. Handel became an English citizen in 1727. He also anglicized his German name and became George Frideric Handel.

In his thirties, Handel continued to compose in the Italian style, though the English musical environment began to influence his method. He became the musical director of the Royal Academy of Music in 1719 and continued in this position until 1734. The Royal Academy of Music was dedicated to the performance of Italian operas. While in this post, Handel was recognized as London's leading composer and director.

Though he had monumental success in London, Handel was nonetheless frequently criticized by English socialites for his stylistic tendencies. Italian opera was all the rage, so his overtly English works were, oddly, not as well received by English audiences expecting to hear the latest in Italian stage works. It is unclear if this was the cause for his bouts of anxiety and depression. During this time also suffered from at least two strokes, but this was not the end of Handel's medical troubles. There are rumors that he became ill due to lead poisoning from drinking cheap port, or sweet wine. In his later years, Handel also suffered from cataracts. He tried desperately to overcome them by surgery. In those days, surgery was not a very reliable method of treatment, and as a result he became blind from the operations.

Continuing his work in a state of near blindness, Handel focused on English oratorios rather than Italian operas. Even with all of the physical trauma that Handel endured, he became one of the most important composers of the Baroque Period. Perhaps only second in importance to Johann Sebastian Bach, he dominated most of the operatic scene. With a total of forty-six original operas and thirty-one oratorios and odes, Handel's work continued to flourish during this period and beyond. It is because of this extraordinary dedication that Handel is more well-known for his oratorios. True to the word's definition, he composed many based on Old Testament stories, including Samson, Belshazzar, and Solomon. And of course, Handel's most famous piece, Messiah, was performed in 1742 for the first time.

Handel may not have purposely sought out publicity or fame, but he unknowingly captured the hearts of millions over the last three centuries. His work has since been revived countless times by theatrical and choral companies alike. Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano, Orlando, and Alcina are just a few of Handel's operas that have had a lasting influence on civilization's interpretation of classical music. Until his final breath on April 14, 1759 in London, Handel was dedicated to the music that he loved so much, and never have seventy four years of a single man's life so greatly changed the world.

Copyright © 1997 by Sarah Duchovny. All Rights Reserved.