George Frederic Handel was born in Halle, Germany in 1685. Though there were no musicians in his family, his father recognized his talent and allowed him to study composition, organ, harpsichord, violin, and oboe with composer Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow. At an early age, he had a strong grasp of counterpoint and of Italian and German compositional tradition. In 1702, he began attending the University of Halle, and he soon began working as a cathedral organist. He spent much of his childhood education training to be a cathedral cantor, yet in 1703, he moved to Hamburg and began to focus on composing operas.
Handel frequently traveled to and from German, Italian, and English-speaking countries. From 1706-1710, he lived in Italy, studying Italian opera. He also spent a great deal of time in England developing oratorios and concertos. Over the course of his career, he wrote operas, concertos, oratorios, cantatas, suites, and sonatas. Unlike many composers who only achieved renown posthumously, Handel was beloved throughout much of his career.
Within the church, Handel is probably best known for his oratorios–Saul, Messiah, Israel in Egypt, Judas Maccabaeus, Joshua, and so on. Without a doubt, his greatest contribution to the development of the oratorio was the use of the chorus. He borrowed from the Lutheran and south German traditions but relied heavily on the English forms as well. In A History of Western Music, Donald Grout writes, “The monumental character of Handel’s choral style fits the oratorio’s emphasis on communal rather than individual expression.”(1) Handel also found ways to illustrate the text of an oratorio through devices such as word-painting (using a musical figure to illustrate what the words are saying).
There is so much more about Handel that can be said in one blog post. His compositional expertise has provided the church, the orchestra, and the opera stage a vast and much-loved body of work.
I’ll give Donald Grout the last word:
Handel’s historical significance rests largely on his contribution to the living repertory of performed music. His music aged well because he adopted the devices that became important in the new style of the mid-eighteenth century. Handel’s emphasis on melody and harmony, as compared to the more strictly contrapuntal procedures of Bach, allied him with the fashions of his time. As a choral composer…he had no peer. He was a consummate master of contrast, not only in choral music but in all types of compositions. In the oratorios he deliberately appealed to a middle-class audience, recognizing social changes that would have far-reaching effects on music.(2)
Messiah–“There were shepherds abiding” (This recording is a little old, but it’s Robert Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony, so I had to include it!)
Judas Maccabaeus–“See the conquering hero comes” (Sound familiar? It was later adapted to form the hymn “Thine be the Glory, Risen Conquering Son.”)
There are so many more on YouTube and iTunes, so feel free to keep listening!
One of the great things about Handel’s music is that many people find it (or at least Messiah) familiar. Many community choirs perform his oratorios, and churches will often host Messiah “sing alongs” around Christmas. There’s something about his music that makes you want to be part of it rather than just listening. (Or maybe that’s just me–is it just me?)
We often relegate Handel to Christmas and Easter. Would you like to hear him more year-round, or do you think that only hearing his works every so often makes the experience more special? What are some of your favorite works by Handel? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
1. Grout, Donald Jay and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music. London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001.