Personalities | George Frideric Handel | Late Baroque | Classical

English composer

George Frideric Handel is one of the best known of all Baroque composers. His gift for melody, his instinctive sense of drama and vivid scene-painting, and the extraordinary range of human emotions explored in his vocal compositions make his music instantly accessible. Works such as Messiah (1741), Water Music (1717) and Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749) have guaranteed him enduring popularity.

Born in Germany, Handel formed a personal style based mainly on the French and Italian music of the period, but he spent most of his working life in England. Unlike most of his musical contemporaries, he was not (except very briefly) attached to a royal court or a religious institution, and financial independence helped him to maintain his individual profile as a composer. Handel’s early career was dominated by opera, but he became increasingly interested in the possibilities of the oratorio form, which he established as a leading feature of English musical life. He showed equal mastery as a writer of cantatas, anthems and concertos and was greatly admired for his virtuosity as an organist and harpsichordist. His mature style had a major influence on the native English composers of his time.

Early Life

Handel was born on 23 February 1685, as Georg Friederich Händel (he later anglicized his name), in the German city of Halle. His father was a well-respected barber-surgeon, whose much younger wife was the daughter of a Lutheran minister. This middle-class background, combined with a good education at local schools, whose curricula were among the most advanced in Europe, might have destined the boy to a professional career, and Dr Händel evidently intended his son to become a lawyer. A year spent at Halle’s university in 1702 was devoted to legal studies, but by this time Handel’s father was dead, and he had developed into a composer and instrumental performer of real promise.

It was one of Dr Händel’s aristocratic patrons, the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels, who had urged him to allow his son to study music. The young Handel’s teacher was Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow (1663–1712), an outstanding organist and well known as a composer of Lutheran cantatas. Little of Handel’s student work survives, but the evidence suggests that Zachow’s teaching was extremely thorough. His pupil was encouraged to examine a wide range of music by other masters – German and Italian – and this laid the basis of the eclectic style Handel developed in his artistic maturity.

The Hamburg Years

After a one-year contract as organist at Halle Cathedral in 1702, Handel moved to Hamburg to join the orchestra at the Gänsemarkt opera house. This northern city was one of Germany’s largest and most cosmopolitan, a wealthy international trading centre, which had imported the fashionable new entertainment form of opera during the late seventeenth century. Influences at the Gänsemarkt theatre were chiefly French and Italian: ballet and spectacular stage effects recalled Louis XIV’s Versailles, while the style of the librettos was marked by a mixture of serious...

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