Personalities | George Frideric Handel | Late Baroque | Opera

1685–1759, German

Handel composed 42 operas between 1704 and 1740, but most of these were neglected and seldom performed after his lifetime. In the twentieth century, Handel’s music dramas and in particular his operas underwent a renaissance that has established him as the definitive theatre composer of the late Baroque period.

Handel was a maverick composer who pursued his own personal artistic direction, which was at times perceived by some of his London audience as old-fashioned compared to newer Italian composers. His eventual abandonment of Italian opera in favour of composing works in English allowed him to continue using his extraordinary gifts as a musical dramatist while establishing English oratorio as a distinctive and distinguished art form.

Organ Loft to Opera House

Handel was born on 23 February 1685 in the provincial Saxon city of Halle. It is reputed that the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels persuaded Handel’s unsympathetic father to allow the boy to study music with the organist Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow. The young Handel presumably gained a thorough education in counterpoint and theory, but it is likely he yearned to escape Halle’s devoutly Pietist atmosphere. In 1703 he arrived in Hamburg, where a chance meeting with Johann Mattheson (1681–1764) in an organ loft drew Handel into working his way up through the ranks of opera house orchestra until he composed his first opera, Almira, at the age of 19.

Papal Oratorios and a Protestant Patron

Having exhausted his career possibilities in Hamburg, Handel resolved to visit Italy in 1706, where his first major undertaking was Rodrigo (1707), for Duke Ferdinando de’ Medici at Florence. In Rome, where opera was forbidden by papal decree, Handel produced magnificent church music, dramatic oratorios and cantatas. His massively successful Venetian masterpiece Agrippina (1709) is the only opera that Handel set to a libretto written especially for him.

Handel resisted attempts to convert him to Catholicism while in Italy, and preferred to accept the position of Kapellmeister at the Protestant court of the Elector of Hanover. Nevertheless, he soon composed Rinaldo, which was performed in London. It was enormously popular and he deserted his post in Hanover and relocated permanently to London, where he seems to have overcome any diplomatic problems that might have arisen when his erstwhile employer became George I in 1714.

Director of the Royal Academy of Music

For a short period Handel provided music for James Brydges, the Earl of Carnarvon, including the masque Acis and Galatea that indicated a fertile future in composing English works. However, in 1719 Handel was appointed musical director of the Royal Academy of Music, an aristocratic company that funded performances of Italian opera at the King’s Theatre on the Haymarket. This rivalled any opera house in Europe, starring the famous singers Cuzzoni and Senesino, for whom Handel created Giulio Cesare in Egitto. The following season, the arrival of the tenor Francesco Borosini influenced Tamerlano (1724) and Rodelinda (1725). The addition of a second prima donna, the soprano Faustina,...

To read the full article please either login or register .


An extensive music information resource, bringing together the talents and expertise of a wide range of editors and musicologists, including Stanley Sadie, Charles Wilson, Paul Du Noyer, Tony Byworth, Bob Allen, Howard Mandel, Cliff Douse, William Schafer, John Wilson...


Classical, Rock, Blues, Jazz, Country and more. Flame Tree has been making encyclopaedias and guides about music for over 20 years. Now Flame Tree Pro brings together a huge canon of carefully curated information on genres, styles, artists and instruments. It's a perfect tool for study, and entertaining too, a great companion to our music books.

Rock, A Life Story

Rock, A Life Story

The ultimate story of a life of rock music, from the 1950s to the present day.

David Bowie

David Bowie

Fantastic new, unofficial biography covers his life, music, art and movies, with a sweep of incredible photographs.