Born Georg Frederich Handel in 1685, the second son to the physician Georg Handel who was well over 60 years of age and married for the second time. The senior Handel was distinguished in Halle and the court of Saxe Weissenfels, and was acquainted with many of the court musicians. Even though young Georg exhibited much talent at an early age, his father insisted that he pursue the legal profession and refused to support any musical training at all.
Fortunately, when he was seven, he was heard trying out the organ by the duke and his Kapellmeister Johann Phillip Krieger while on a visit to the court at Weissenfels. Both pressed the senior Handel to provide musical training for his young son. When they returned to Halle, Georg was enrolled in the municipal school for regular studies, but his father did allow him to take harpsichord lessons. This training provided excellent grounding, which can be seen in a manuscript notebook dated 1698 that Handel kept all of his life.Remaining true to his father even after his death in1697, Handel continued his legal studies. He entered the university in February of 1702, and in March was appointed temporary organist in the cathedral. Handel allowed himself to become more involved in Halle’s musical scene. In March 1703, Handel left his legal studies and moved to Hamburg. Passing through Hanover he met Agostino Steffani.
While in Hamburg, Handel successfully produced two operas in 1705 and also worked as a violinist in the opera orchestra. Unfortunately the theater was experiencing difficulties and he traveled to Italy in 1706 to try his luck there.Handel traveled extensively throughout Italy building his reputation as a composer and keyboard virtuoso. He produced the opera Rodrigo at Florence in 1706 and Agrippina at Venice in 1709. Shortly thereafter he accepted the post of Kappelmeister at the court at Hanover, influenced by his friend Agostino Steffani. After obtaining a leave from the court, he arrived in London in December 1710 where he wrote the Italian opera Rinaldo in 15 days, which was well received. Due to its success, Handel was granted a second leave from Hanover. During this period he composed, by the order of Queen Anne, his Te Deum to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht.
Handel stayed in England in the household of Lord Burlington until the sudden death of Queen Anne in August 1714, and George, Elector of Hanover, was crowned George I. Handel regained favor with the crown with the success of Amadigi and was invited to accompany the king on a visit to Hanover in July 1716. During this period, Handel became a naturalized British subject and changed his name to George Frideric Handel.
From 1717 to 1720 George directed the private chapel of the duke of Chandos. From 1720 to 1728 he was involved in the Royal Academy of Music at the Haymarket Theatre, for the performance of Italian opera. Quarrels, rivalries, and disputes between the actors ended the group at the completion of the 1728 season. During this troubled period, Handel wrote the four anthems for the coronation of George II, including Zadok the Priest, which has been performed at every British coronation since.
While in Venice to recruit singers for a joint venture with the Haymarket Theatre manager, Handel was called to the side of his ailing mother in Halle where he spent a year. Upon his return to London he took up the fight for the acceptance of Italian opera, writing two or three operas a year in competition with the ‘Opera of the Nobility’ sponsored by the Prince of Wales. During this period he struggled with illness and bankruptcy trying to impose Italian opera on a mostly hostile public. But he also produced two oratorios, Esther and Deborah, and returning to this style he completed Messiah which was first heard at Dublin in April 1742.
For four more years, he suffered London’s hostility. But Handel triumphed with the Occasional Oratorio written in 1746 ‘to encourage the English resistance’ to the Stuarts, and Judas Maccabaeus written in 1747 to celebrate the Battle of Culloden.In 1748 after completing the last act of Jephtha Handel submitted to three cataract operations in an unsuccessful attempt to stem his worsening blindness. His last seven years were spent mostly in solitude and contemplation. He would occasionally play an organ concerto during the intermission of a performance of one of his oratorios.
Following his last performance on April 6, 1759 where he played the harpsichord at a performance of Messiah, he became bed ridden and said in his final hours, “I wish I may die on Good Friday, in the hope of meeting my dear Lord and Savior on the day of His Resurrection”.
Handel died on Saturday, April 14, 1759, at the age of 74. He is buried in the Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey in London.
The Larousse Encyclopedia of Music, Published by the World Publishing Company
© The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited 1971
Library of Congress catalog card number: 70-147888