The dramatic English oratorios of the German-born English composer and organist George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) climaxed the entire baroque oratorio tradition. His Italian operas show a nobility of style and profundity of dramatic insight.
For half a century Handel was England's first composer. His lifelong ambition was to excel in creating Italian operas, and toward that end he developed a highly dramatic style of composition, which is to be found in all his works. Success eluded him during 30 years of Herculean labor to establish Italian opera in England until at last he turned to the creation of English oratorios, sacred and secular, which soon caught on in his adopted land and typify the English high baroque style.
George Frederick Handel (German, Georg Friedrich Händel) was born on Feb. 23, 1685, to Georg and Dorothea Händel in Halle. To study music he had to overcome his father's objections, at the same time yielding to insistence that he study law. But even before Handel had finished his course at the University of Halle in 1703, he had diligently pursued a musical career. About the age of 7 he performed at the keyboard before the duke and his court at Weissenfels and as a result became the pupil of Friedrich Wilhelm Zacchow, a composer and the organist at the Liebfrauenkirche in Halle. Zacchow taught him composition as well as organ, violin, and oboe, and by 1695 Handel was composing for these and other instruments. From 1696 until 1701, when he met the composer Georg Philipp Telemann, Handel composed voluminously. By his own testimony he "wrote like the very devil" in those days; the church cantatas and all but a few chamber works he composed at the time have disappeared.
Contact with Telemann and a meeting shortly afterward with the composer Agostino Steffani spurred Handel's operatic ambitions. In 1703 he resigned his post as organist at the Halle Domkirche and left the university, moving to Hamburg, where he joined the company of Rheinhard Keiser at the Goosemarket Theater as a violinist. Handel's exceptional skill at the keyboard soon brought him employment in that capacity in the performance of operas.
Handel began his own operatic career with Almira (1704), which ran for some 20 performances at the Goosemarket Theater—a very successful run for those days. Nero followed in 1705, then Florindo and Daphne, which owing to its extraordinary length had to be produced as two separate works. (The scores for Nero and Florindo and Daphne are lost.)
Dismayed by Keiser's ineptitude and seeking richer operatic experience, Handel left for Italy in 1706. He visited Florence, Venice, Rome, and Naples during the next three seasons, meeting almost all the notable Italian musicians. His Italian journey resulted in two fine operas, Rodrigo (1707) and Agrippina (1709), produced in Florence and Venice, respectively; several dramatic chamber works, including two of the finest he ever wrote, Apollo e Daphne and Aci, Galatea e Polifemo; and equally dramatic sacred compositions, notably La Resurezzione and the grand motets Dixit Dominus, Laudate Pueri, and Nisi Dominus.
During a second visit to Venice in the season of 1709-1710 Handel met several persons interested in England who no doubt influenced his decision to try his luck as a free-lance musician in London. However, he did not travel directly to England but stopped off at Hanover, where he accepted an offer made by the elector Georg Ludwig to be musical director of his court but requested leave almost immediately for his projected journey to England. A meeting with the manager of the King's Theatre furnished Handel with a chance to compose an opera; within 2 weeks he produced the opera Rinaldo, which marked the high point of the London season in 1710-1711. For better, as well as for worse, Handel's course was set for the rest of his life.
Settling in England
After a token visit to Hanover the following summer Handel returned to London, which became his permanent home. Between 1712 and 1715 he produced in rapid succession Il pastor fido, Teseo, Silla, and Amadigi. During this period he also composed a large amount of music for harp-sichord, chamber ensembles, and orchestra, as well as various works for royal occasions, including the Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate and the Birthday Ode for Queen Anne, both in 1713. These two so impressed the Queen that she awarded Handel an annual salary of £200.
Between 1715 and 1719 Handel produced several of his most famous works for orchestra and for smaller vocal ensembles. Queen Anne, who died in 1714, was succeeded by Georg Ludwig, Handel's former employer at Hanover, who now became George I, King of England. In 1715 Handel provided music for a royal pleasure cruise on the Thames for the King, his mistresses, and several barge-loads of courtiers—the famous Water Music.
In 1716 Handel accompanied his new monarch to Hamburg, while there composing the St. John Passionoratorio (based on a libretto by Berthold Heinrich Brockes), which, again, he finished within an incredibly short period. In 1717 he became musical director for the Earl of Carnarvon (later the Duke of Chandos) at his palatial home, Cannons, where Handel composed the famous Chandos Anthems, wrote music for John Gay's Acis and Galatea and Alexander Pope's Haman and Mordecai, and composed a great quantity of instrumental music.
Operas for the Royal Academy
In 1719 Handel accepted an invitation to join forces with Giovanni Bononcini and Attilio Ariosti in the activities of the newly founded Royal Academy of Music. After traveling to Germany in search of singers, Handel wrote Radamisto for the academy's first season. In 1721 he collaborated in the composition of a composite opera, Muzio Scaevola: Bononcini composed the first act; Filippo Mattei, the second; and Handel, the third, which won the day.
Handel's operas Floridante, Ottone, and Flavio marked the third, fourth, and fifth seasons of the Royal Academy; despite their success the academy did not prosper. In 1724, to make up for the disastrous failure of Ariosti's opera Vespasiano, Handel very speedily brought Giulio Cesareto the boards, which had a resounding success. Bononcini was dismissed shortly before the production of Handel's Tamerlano in 1724, and Ariosti found himself without an engagement in 1725, the year for which Handel produced Rodelinda, another of his most successful operas.
In 1726 Handel became a naturalized Englishman and was appointed composer of music to the Chapel Royal. The season of 1727 saw the production of Handel's Alessandro, which marked the beginning of an intense rivalry between Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni, two prima donnas whose enmity greatly harmed the cause of Italian opera in London. Trouble between the two grew apace in the seventh season of the Royal Academy, during which Handel's Admeto and Riccardo I were performed, and at last erupted into violence during the production of Bononcini's Astianatte, when the ladies actually engaged in fisticuffs on stage, much to the delight of Joseph Addison, who described the event in the Spectator, and of John Gay, who inserted a parallel scene in his Beggar's Opera. Other factors no doubt lent weight to the growing public disenchantment, but this single event seemed to crystallize native opposition to Italian opera in London and introduced a succession of developments which led to its fall. The denouement came with the unprecedented success of the Beggar's Opera (1728). Despite Handel's best efforts with Siroe and Tolomeo, the first Royal Academy of Music failed.
Apparently undismayed, Handel immediately formed the New Royal Academy of Music in partnership with the Swiss entrepreneur Johann Jakob Heidegger. After a whirlwind trip to the Continent to audition new singers and to visit his mother, now blind and alone at Halle, Handel returned to London in time to open the new season with Lotario, following this in a few weeks with Partenope. Thereafter his operas flowed forth on the average of two per year. The quality of all these operas notwithstanding—the list includes such masterworks as Sosarme (1732), Orlando (1733), Arianna (1734), and Alcina (1735)—Italian opera grew ever less popular in London. In April 1737 Handel suffered a stroke; he took a quick cure during the summer at Aix-la-Chapelle and returned to London in time to start the next season. Finally, with the miserable failure of Imeneo (1740) and Deidamia (1741), he at last gave up and wrote no more new operas.
Handel's ultimate failure with operas was offset, however, by ever-increasing success with his oratorios. These provided a new vehicle, the possibilities of which he had begun to explore and experiment with nearly a decade earlier. Indeed these, along with related forms such as masques, odes, and royal occasional music, soon established a new vogue, in which Handel fared better with London audiences than he had ever done with Italian opera. As if to test a possible market for dramatic compositions in English, Handel revived Acis and Galatea without choruses in a performance at Lincoln's-Inn-Fields Theatre in 1731. Prospects for such nonoperatic performances must have seemed favorable, for the very next season Thomas Arne pirated a production of Acis and Galatea for his own profit, with choruses. Thereupon Handel immediately mounted yet another production at the King's Theatre, going his competitors one better by adding various numbers from Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, a work written during his Italian travels, which otherwise had little or nothing in common with the English masque.
Esther, which derived from another composition finished during Handel's stay at Cannons, was produced three times in 1732; its success indicated that producing oratorios was a profitable business. As a direct consequence, the oratorio became a regular feature of each season, with Handel leading the field, as previously he had done with Italian opera.
Deborah graced the fourth season of the New Royal Academy of Music for London audiences in 1733, and in mid-1733 Handel produced Athalia for Oxford. Both oratorios were very successful, and it was obvious that the new form was on its way to becoming an established feature of English concert life. During the Lenten season in 1735 Handel gave no less than 14 concerts, consisting mainly of oratorios. His music set to John Dryden's Alexander's Feast (1736) was successful, which perhaps explains why he not only revived several oratorios, including Esther and Deborah, but mounted as well a new version of Il trionfo del tempo, composed in Italy 29 years earlier.
In 1737, after Handel returned from the cure at Aix-la-Chapelle miraculously restored, he set to work on the eloquent Funeral Anthem for the Death of Queen Caroline; again the performance was very successful. Sauland Israel in Egypt followed in quick succession, the latter being an impressive choral triptych for the first part of which Handel revised the text of the Funeral Anthem. In 1739 Handel prepared his Ode to St. Cecilia. For his next work in this genre, he turned to Milton's L'Allegro ed il pensieroso, undoubtedly the finest poem he ever set to music; the performance at Lincoln's-Inn-Fields in 1740 again was an outstanding success.
In the season of 1740-1741, in which his opera Deidamia failed, Handel produced the oratorios L'Allegro and Messiah in Dublin, along with a great many other works. On his return to London he supervised a production of Saul, as well as other music, including Hymen, a masque revised from his opera Imeneo. The following season (1743-1744) saw three new works: the Dettingen Te Deum, Semele, and Joseph; and each succeeding season, a new pair: Hercules and Belshazzar (1744-1745); the Occasional Oratorio and Judas Maccabeus (1745-1746); Alexander Balus and Joshua (1747-1748); Susanna and Solomon (1748-1749); Theodora and the grand anthem for the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, for which celebration Handel also wrote the Royal Fireworks music (1749-1750). After he composed The Choice of Hercules (1750-1751) and Jeptha (1751), total blindness set in. Thenceforward he was limited to revising earlier works with the aid of the two John Christopher Smiths, father and son, and to improvising on organ and harpsichord in public performances. Handel's accomplishment during the last creative decade of his life seems almost miraculous when to these 20 major works are added the Italian cantatas, several concertos and concerti grossi, and other miscellaneous works. He died in London on April 14, 1759.
Surveying Handel's entire creative life, one gains a sense of spontaneous and incredibly abundant creative flow. This sense is confirmed by the marvelous collections of autographs preserved at the Fitzwilliam and British museums in England, which reveal not only the enormous bulk of his creative achievement but also something of his uncompromising critical judgment. There is scarcely a page without deletions and emendations; frequently, he struck out whole passages. He obviously knew the art of heavy pruning, and his works profited greatly from it.
Handel's propensity to "write like the very devil" proved invaluable, in view of the demands imposed upon his time and energies in opera composition throughout most of his career. Time after time he found it necessary to meet crises without much time for creative gestation.
When Handel first arrived in London, for instance, it was urgent that he produce an opera quickly. By borrowing from Rodrigo and other works, he had the complete score ready within 2 weeks. Throughout his operatic career he achieved similar feats. When he turned to oratorio composition, the situation did not change greatly. To "save" the season of 1738-1739, Handel created both Israel in Egypt and Saul within an incredibly short period; no less than 17 of the 35 numbers of Israel in Egypt are derived from earlier pieces. The Messiah was written between Aug. 22 and Sept. 12, 1741. Again he depended heavily upon earlier works, mainly the Italian Duets composed earlier that summer. But in this instance, as in almost all others, the product bears the stamp of original, coherent unity so convincingly as to belie borrowing.
This paradoxical aspect of Handel's genius has received a great deal of scholarly attention. But all apologetics and moralizing indictments aside, it is clearly evident that Handel was at heart a dramatic composer for whom setting the scene and atmosphere and delineating character thrust all other considerations into the background.
Further Reading on George Frederick Handel
The best-balanced study in the vast literature on Handel's life and works is Paul Henry Lang, George Frideric Handel (1966), which shows remarkable insight into the man, his works, and his times. Gerald Abraham, Handel; A Symposium (1954), is a very useful collection of essays on various aspects of Handel's creative life and an indispensable handbook for the Handel student. Three works established important milestones in Handel research and scholarship: Otto E. Deutsch, Handel: A Documentary Biography (1955); Jens Peter Larsen, Handel's Messiah: Origins, Composition, Sources (1957); and Winton Dean, Handel's Dramatic Oratorio and Masques (1959).