“… But Handel’s harmony affects the soul,
To sooth by sweetness, or by force controul;
And with like sounds as tune the rolling spheres,
So tunes the mind, that ev’ry sense has ears.
When jaundice jealousy, and carking care,
Or tyrant pride, or homicide despair,
The soul as on a rack in torture keep,
Those monsters Handel’s music lulls to sleep.”
an anonymous poem in The Gentleman’s Magazine, May 1740
Being a posthumously famous artist, musician, performer and so forth is a peculiar sentiment. A name may be remembered for hundreds of years, a painting may be viewed centuries after the artist’s death, people may have favourite musicians who lived long before their birth, but is it the person who is famous or the legacies they have left behind? One of the most famous British composers is Handel, a German-born Baroque musician who lived in the 18th century. Most people can name at least one or two of his compositions, but how many can claim to know about the man himself? How many people can explain how a German child grew up to be the highly acclaimed British composer? Handel’s name has survived through his music but his personal history is equally worthy of praise.
Georg Friedrich Händel was born on 5th March 1685 (incidentally the same year as J.S. Bach and Scarlatti) in the Prussian, now German, town Halle-upon-Saale to Georg Händel and Dorothea Taust. Little is known about Handel’s early life but documents prove that he was the first son of his father’s second marriage, discounting a still-birth, and he was followed by two sisters, Dorothea Sophia, born 6th October 1687, and Johanna Christiana, born 10th January 1690. His maternal grandfather was the Lutheran pastor of the Church of St. Bartholomew in Giebichenstein, north Germany, and it is likely that this had some influence on his upbringing.
Information about Handel’s childhood has to rely upon Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel written by his biographer John Mainwaring (1724-1807), although there are many discrepancies within the text. For instance, Mainwaring claims that Handel’s father was dismayed with his son’s penchant for music and “took every measure to oppose it”, going as far as to ban musical instruments from the house and refusing to let Handel visit anyone in possession of one. The biographer tells a romantic story about Handel’s secret visits to the attic where he had hidden a clavichord, which he played whilst his family were asleep. Some historians claim this to be little more than “poetic imagination”, for Handel must have been receiving some sort of musical education for him to be eventually noticed by Johann Adolf I, Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels (1649-97).
At about eight years old, the young Handel accompanied his father on a trip to Weissenfels where he sneaked over to the organ in the palace chapel of the Holy Trinity and proceeded to play. His impromptu performance was overheard by Duke Johann Adolf I who persuaded Handel’s father to allow his son to receive musical instruction. Back home, his father sought out the organist at the Halle parish church, Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow (1663-1712), and Handel’s musical education began. He learnt to play the violin as well as the organ, yet continued to practice on the clavichord/harpsichord. It is also noted that Handel developed a love for the oboe, which is evidenced by the number of pieces he would later compose for this instrument.
Due to his late father’s wishes that he should become a lawyer, Handel enrolled at the University of Halle in 1702, however, he never completed the course. Despite being Lutheran, Handel accepted the position of organist at the Calvinist Cathedral in Halle until mid-1703 when he moved to Hamburg. Whilst he was in the city, Handel joined the orchestra for the theatre Oper am Gänsemarkt as a violinist and harpsichordist. It was during this period that Handel composed his first two operas, Almira (full title: Der in Krohnen erlangte Glücks-Wechsel, oder: Almira, Königin von Castilien) and Nero; Handel was only 19-years old.
In 1706, Handel was invited to Italy; whilst it is uncertain who summoned him, it is likely to have been a member of the Medici family. During his time in Florence and Rome, Handel wrote several compositions, including sacred music for the Roman clergy, cantatas, oratorios, and operas. Yet, Handel’s time here was short, by 1710 he had become the Kapellmeister to the future king of England, Prince George the Elector of Hamburg (George I).
By the time he was 27-years old, Handel had found a permanent home in London. He achieved great success with his opera Rinaldo, the first opera in Italian to be performed in the British capital, which the Victoria and Albert Museum celebrated last year (2017) in their exhibition on opera. The composer caught the attention of Queen Anne who supplied him with a yearly stipend of £200 after he composed the sacred choral composition Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate (1713) in her honour. For the next five years, however, Handel gave up composing operas, although his famous Water Music proved popular.
In 1717, Handel became the resident composer at the stately home Cannons in Little Stanmore, Middlesex, where he composed his 12 Chandos Anthems for his patron, James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos (1673-1744). Handel also wrote his first English-language pastoral opera, or “little opera”, Acis and Galatea (1718), which became the most performed of his works during his lifetime. The music was set to a text written by John Gay (1685-1732), a poet and dramatist who also penned The Beggars Opera (1728).
During his residence at Cannons, the Royal Academy of Music was founded by a group of aristocrats who sought musicians and composers to perform and write operas and such forth. Handel was one of three leading composers commissioned by the academy, the others being Attilio Ariosti (1666-1729) and Giovanni Bononcini (1670-1747), and was also appointed as Master of the Orchestra. One of Handel’s commissions was to write four anthems for the coronation ceremony of George II: The King Shall Rejoice, My Heart is Inditing and Let thy Hand be Strengthened, and Zadok the Priest. The latter has become one of Handel’s best-known works and has been played at every British monarch’s coronation since.
Unfortunately, the Royal Academy of Music soon folded but Handel continued composing and sought a venture elsewhere. In 1729, Handel became the joint manager of The Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket (now Her Majesty’s Theatre) alongside the leading impresario John James Heidegger (1666-1749). Works by Handel were already popular at this theatre and between the years 1711 and 1739, over 25 of his operas premiered there.
Handel could be a very cantankerous man and earned a reputation for his inexhaustible vocabulary of swear words in five different languages. Whether or not triggered by the stress of opera falling out of fashion, thus causing Handel to become bankrupt, he suffered a stroke in April 1737, aged 52, resulting in temporary loss of movement in his right hand. Unable to perform, Handel sought treatment in Aachen, a spa in Germany, where he made an astonishingly quick recovery. He continued writing operas despite his ill-health, however, by 1741 and still losing money, he decided to give up in favour of English oratorios.
Unfortunately, Handel’s oratorios, many of which were based on biblical passages, caused controversy and outrage throughout the predominantly Protestant country. The Church was shocked about God’s word being spoken in the theatre in such a fashion causing one minister to exclaim: “What are we coming to when the will of Satan is imposed upon us in this fashion?”
Angry Christians sabotaged many of the performances of Handel’s oratorios, something which deeply saddened the Lutheran composer who was profoundly religious himself. The author John Hawkins (1719-89) commented that Handel “would frequently declare the pleasure he felt in setting the Scriptures to music, and how contemplating the many sublime passages in the Psalms had contributed to his edification.” Not to be defeated, Handel persevered with his compositions, however, he was at risk of being thrown into debtor’s prison. Depressed, his health deteriorating and his career on the line, Handel was losing hope of any future successes, however, his greatest legacy was still to come.
In 1741, friend and librettist, Charles Jennens (1700-73) visited Handel with a proposal concerning a spiritual text he had written based on the King James Bible. The story is a reflection on the life of Jesus the Messiah beginning with the prophecy told in Isaiah, through to the Annunciation, Passion and Resurrection. Having written with the intent of it being sung, Jennens entreated Handel to compose an oratorio. In spite of the negative reaction he had received with his previous religious works, Handel accepted and estimated that he would need a year to complete the entire score.
With a new project to work on, Handel’s depression lifted and he swiftly completed the entire orchestration in 24 days, which consisted of 53 movements within three parts. Containing sections for trumpets, timpani, oboes, violins, cellos and so forth, and the famous Hallelujah Chorus, Messiah was born.
“I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.”
-Handel speaking about composing the Hallelujah Chorus
Messiah premiered at the new Music Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin in April 1742. It was performed as a means of raising money “for the relief of prisoners in the several gaols and for the support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay.” Although some people felt insulted that Handel had not premiered the oratorio in London first, his reasoning was that it was too sacred for the theatre and too long for a liturgical service – concert halls had not yet arrived in the capital.
Handel hoped for the concert in Dublin to become an annual event, however, this plan never came to fruition. Nonetheless, Messiah was soon to become a yearly occurrence in London, attracting thousands of spectators. In 1749, another benefit concert, this time in aid of the Foundling Hospital, was so successful that it was repeated each year, including after Handel’s death in 1759.
The Foundling Hospital, established in 1739, was a children’s home established for the “education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children.” The money raised from the Messiah concerts helped to fund the home and Handel was elected a Governor of the Hospital in recognition of his support.
Despite the success of Messiah, Handel was once again nearing poverty by 1745. Opera was no longer as popular as it used to be and many performances failed to attract a full audience. Alongside this, Handel’s health was rapidly deteriorating, he was losing his sight, thus making it difficult to write. Despite a cataract operation in 1751, Handel was completely blind the following year. He remained in his house in London, occasionally attending concerts to listen to the music he had composed. The last work he heard before his death in 1759 was of Messiah.
Although he died a poor man, Handel was given full state honours and buried in the south wing of Westminster Abbey. Over 3000 mourners attended his funeral, proving that he had been a popular composer regardless of the difficulties during his final years. In his will, Handel had requested the following in regards to his burial:
I hope I have the permission of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster to be buried in Westminster Abbey, in a private manner, at the discretion of my executor, Mr. Amyand; and I desire that my said executor may have leave to erect a monument for me there, and that any sum not exceeding six hundred pounds, be expended for that purpose, at the discretion of my said executor.
Handel may have been quick to anger, as evidenced by his colourful use of language, but he was also a kind and generous man, particularly considering his own financial state. An entry in his will dated 4th August 1757 stated, “a fair copy of the score, and all parts of my oratorio called the Messiah” was to be given to the Foundling Hospital so that they had every right to continue their annual benefit concert. Handel’s will can be viewed at the Foundling Museum in London.
The Foundling Museum tells the history of the hospital and its patrons including George Frideric Handel, who has an entire upper room devoted to him. Alongside his will, many other items are displayed in connection with the great composer. These have come from the Handel Collection owned by Gerald Coke, who had amassed over 1000 books, scores and objects. Coke began collecting in 1930 until his death in 1990, by which time he owned the biggest private accumulation of “Handelania” in the country.
Amongst the objects in the museum are manuscripts, paintings, posters, advertisements, music, busts and a model of his monument in Westminster Abbey. Visitors can also sit and listen to a handful of Handel’s compositions and talk to knowledgeable staff about his life and works.
Another statue of Handel can be viewed in the V&A. A full-length marble statue was commissioned of the composer in approximately 1730 by the proprietor of New Spring Gardens (Vauxhall Gardens) Jonathan Tyers (1702-67). At this period of time, Handel was the leading composer of music in London and his statue was used to help advertise the gardens. The sculpture was produced by Louis François Roubiliac (1702–62) and it is thought to be his first independent work, thus establishing his reputation.
There are a number of other places in London fans of Handel can visit, including a number of places he frequented, however, there is none so important as the Handel House Museum in Mayfair. Now renamed Handel and Hendrix in London, the museum is set up within the rooms of 25 Brook Street where Handel lived for the majority of his time in London. It also incorporates a room from 23 Brook Street where the rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix (1942-70) once lived.
The house has been restored to look how it did during Handel’s 36-year occupancy until his death in 1759. The interior is decorated in the typical Georgian style and contains a variety of Handel memorabilia. The front room of the house was likely used as a rehearsal room, whereas the rear, containing Handel’s clavichord is presumably where most of his composing took place. The rest of the rooms reflect the standard living arrangements of the time, including a bedroom, dressing room and servant quarters.
Of the hundreds of items in the collection, the correspondences of Handel and original compositions are perhaps the most precious. A copy of one of the first biographies of Handel by John Mainwaring is also in the museum’s possession. The remainder of objects include prints, paintings and sculptures of the composer.
Although an easily recognised name, the life of Handel is largely unacknowledged and his existence is identified through his music. His name is also remembered in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church with a feast day on 28th July, which he shares with Johann Sebastian Bach and Henry Purcell (1659-95).
Amongst his contemporaries and later musicians, Handel was regarded with high esteem, particularly by Bach and Mozart (1756-91), the latter who was born in the final years of Handel’s life. Another composer that lived after Handel’s time who considered him the greatest composer who ever lived was Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Calling him “the master of us all,” Beethoven exclaimed, “Go to him to learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means.”
The man may no longer be important in contemporary society, however, Handel’s music will never go out of fashion. His compositions continue to be performed yearly for a variety of events, for instance, the BBC Proms, Good Friday services, Christmas concerts, Royal celebrations and so on.
Whether by attending an opera, a concert or hearing background music on a television advert, Handel will continue to infiltrate the lives of Londoners and the rest of the western world. Nonetheless, it is always worth discovering more about the people who have impacted lives through music or any other means; you are bound to find out something interesting.
“He died as he lived—a good Christian, with a true sense of his duty to God and to man, and in perfect charity with all the world.”