Jump To Section
Who Was George Frideric Handel?
George Frideric Handel was a German-born British composer known for Baroque opera, oratorios, cantatas, organ concertos, and concerti grossi. He spent his early years in Halle and Hamburg, Germany before settling in London, where he lived and composed for nearly 50 years.
Along with the German J.S. Bach and the Italian Domenico Scarlatti, Handel is one of the most enduring composers from classical music's Baroque period. Handel's operas and orchestral works—particularly Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks —remain standard repertoire well into the twenty-first century. Handel's Messiah, an English oratorio, is a staple for many ensembles' Christmas programming.
Handel was widely admired by other composers, including his contemporary Bach (who attempted unsuccessfully to meet him), Mozart, and Beethoven (who declared him at the pinnacle of history's greatest composers).
A Brief Biography of George Frideric Handel
Georg Friedrich Händel was born in 1685 in Halle, a city in eastern Germany not far from Bach's home of Leipzig. Music was not encouraged in his household, and Handel’s father insisted he study law. Nonetheless, Handel’s talent was undeniable, and famed organist Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow took him on as a keyboard student.
- Early works: By the age of 20, Handel had composed two operas: Almira and Nero, which were both produced in 1705. By 1708, two additional operas, Daphne and Florindo, made their debut. During this period, Handel also studied in Italy, where he composed Dixit Dominus (1707), La resurrezione (1709), Il trionfo del tempo (1710), and numerous cantatas. He wrote his first Italian opera, Rodrigo, in 1707 followed by Agrippina (with a libretto by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani) in 1709.
- Chief conductor: In 1710, Handel was hired as Kapellmeister (chief conductor) for the Elector of Hanover, who would end up becoming King George I of Great Britain and Ireland. This brought Handel to London for the first time, where he composed Rinaldo, his first Italian opera written for an English audience.
- Royal and popular audiences: Through his royal connections, Handel received an annual salary from Queen Anne, and also enjoyed the patronage of Lord Burlington. In England, Handel was popular among both the royals and the general public, thanks to compositions like 1717's Water Music, which was written to be performed along the banks of the River Thames. Even more popular was Acis and Galatea, commissioned by The 1st Duke of Chandos.
- Creating the Royal Academy of Music: During this time, Handel founded the Royal Academy of Music, which produced all of his new operas. He moved into a home at 25 Brook Street in London, which survives to this day as the Handel House Museum. It was here, in 1724 and 1725, that Handel wrote the Italian operas, Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano, and Rodelinda. He was also commissioned to write coronation anthems for King George II, who took the throne in 1727. One of these anthems, Zadok the Priest, is still performed at every British coronation ceremony.
- High-spectacle productions: Handel started a theatre and opera company at Covent Garden Theatre, known for its high-spectacle productions. He composed several more operas including his final, Deidamia, which was performed three times in 1741.
- End-of-life oratorios: For the remainder of his life, Handel shifted his focus from opera to English oratorios. These included Alexander’s Feast (1736), Saul (1739), and Israel in Egypt (1739). The most popular of his oratorios, Messiah, debuted in 1742. Its renowned "Hallelujah!" chorus is one of the most famous passages in Handel's musical literature. Late Handel oratorios include Samson (1743), Solomon (1749), and Jephtha (1752).
Handel spent his final years in some physical distress. He was nearly blind toward the end of his life and died in 1759 at the age of 74. He was given the English equivalent of a state funeral and was buried at Westminster Abbey. He left no heirs and famously assigned the rights and royalties of Messiah to London's Foundling Hospital.