Beethoven at 250

On 17th December 2020, it will be 250 years since the famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven was baptised as a baby in the Catholic Parish of St. Remigius. In those days, it was custom to baptise babies within 24 hours of birth, so let us celebrate the 250th birthday of the composer and reflect upon the genius of his work, which has survived and remains popular in the 21st century.

Beethoven, named after his grandfather, Ludwig van Beethoven (1712-73), a professional singer and music director, was destined to become a musician. His father, Johann (1740-92) was also a singer and musician who performed in the chapel of the Archbishop of Cologne. His mother, Maria Magdalena Keverich (1746-87) was the daughter of the head chef at the court of the Elector of Trier.

Born on 17th December 1770 in Bonn, Germany, Beethoven was the second of seven children of which only three survived infancy. His younger brother Kaspar (1774-1815) experimented with musical composition but never became famous. Beethoven’s youngest brother, Nikolaus Johann (1776-1848), took a different career path and opened a pharmacy in Linz, Austria.

Beethoven’s father taught the boys to play the piano, and possibly the violin, from the age of five. As he got older, Beethoven received lessons from local musicians on various instruments: organ, piano, violin and viola. Although Beethoven showed considerable musical talents, his tutoring sessions were long and hard, and his teachers strict, often reducing the young boy to tears. Tuition took place at any time of day and night and, on occasion, Ludwig was dragged from his bed in the middle of the night for an impromptu piano lesson.

It was not only the tutors that were harsh on Beethoven. His ambitious father was aware of the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) and his sister Nannerl (1751-1829), who were impressing the population of Salzburg, Austria, with their musical talent and youth. When Beethoven made his first public performance at the age of seven, his father claimed he was only six to make his son appear to be as talented as the Mozarts.

At the beginning of the 1780s, Beethoven began studying with the German opera composer and conductor, Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748-98). Principally teaching him to play the piano, Neefe was Beethoven’s most influential tutor during his youth. Beethoven became Neefe’s assistant as an unpaid organist in 1782 but two years later had risen to a paid position at the court chapel.

As well as piano technique, Neefe taught Beethoven about composition. At the age of 11 and 12, Beethoven composed his first keyboard works. The three piano sonatas are known as the Kurfürstensonaten (Elector Sonatas), dedicated to Maximilian Friedrich von Königsegg-Rothenfels (1708-84), the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne and the Bishop of Münster. For such a young composer, Beethoven’s compositions were remarkably mature and gave an early glimpse of his Classical piano talent.

Beethoven … a boy of 11 years and most promising talent. He plays the piano very skilfully and with power, reads at sight very well … the chief piece he plays is Das wohltemperierte Klavier of Sebastian Bach, which Herr Neefe puts into his hands …

Magazin der Musik (1783)

The success of these sonatas gained Beethoven financial support from several people, but between 1785-90 Beethoven disappeared from the limelight. As far as historians are aware, Beethoven did not produce any compositions during this time, most likely as a result of ongoing problems within his family. Beethoven’s mother passed away in 1787 just after he had returned from Vienna where he had heard Mozart play. Being the eldest surviving child, a lot of the family responsibility fell to seventeen-year-old Beethoven.

Complicating things further, Beethoven’s father lost his job due to alcoholism. Although Johann van Beethoven was offered a pension, the money was ordered by the court to be paid directly to Ludwig so that he could look after his younger brothers. This money was not enough to keep the family afloat, so Beethoven had to earn a salary. He achieved this by taking on pupils and playing the viola in the court orchestra. The orchestra played music by several composers, including Mozart, which must have felt like an insult to Beethoven who was brought up to consider Mozart his rival.

Making up for lost time, Beethoven composed several works between 1790 and 1792. Although not published at the time, they show his progression from his first works ten years before. Neefe encouraged Beethoven to take on commissions and introduced him to Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), the Austrian composer, who briefly stayed in Bonn for Christmas in 1790. Beethoven much admired the older composer and Haydn was also impressed with Beethoven’s talents. When Haydn returned to Bonn in 1792, Beethoven was earning money by playing the viola in the court orchestra. Haydn, on the other hand, wished to tutor Beethoven personally and invited him to Vienna. One of Beethoven’s financial supporters, Count Ferdinand von Waldstein (1762-1823) encouraged the proposal, stating: “You are going to Vienna in fulfilment of your long-frustrated wishes … With the help of assiduous labour you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.”

Beethoven arrived in Vienna in November 1792 and devoted himself to study and performance under Haydn’s guidance. He also received tuition from the Austrian violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh (1776-1830) and learnt about composition from the classical composer Antonio Salieri (1750-1825).

Using his connection with Haydn to his advantage, Beethoven developed a reputation as a performer and gained the financial support of several Viennese noblemen, including Prince Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz (1772-1816). By 1793, Vienna knew Beethoven as a piano virtuoso, but he was also an up-and-coming composer.

Beethoven’s first public performance in Vienna took place during March 1795, in which he performed a piano concerto he had written. Dedicating it to one of his patrons, Prince Karl Lichnowsky (1761-1814), Beethoven formerly published the music as a set of trios for piano, violin and cello under the name Opus 1. The profits for this publication was enough to cover Beethoven’s living expenses for a year.

Over the next couple of years, Beethoven published and wrote many concertos and sonatas. By 1799, 28-year-old Beethoven published his thirteenth musical work (Op. 13). Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, or Sonata Pathétique as it is more commonly known, is one of Beethoven’s most celebrated works, “surpass[ing] any of his previous compositions, in strength of character, depth of emotion, level of originality, and ingenuity of motivic and tonal manipulation.” (Barry Cooper, Beethoven, 2008)

By 1800, Beethoven was the most talented young composer after Haydn and Mozart. The same year, he published his first symphony, which he dedicated to his patron Gottfried van Swieten (1733-1803). The premiere took place at the Burgtheater in Vienna alongside performances of works by Haydn and Mozart. The premiere was hailed “the most interesting concert in a long time” by the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (General music newspaper). The next year, Beethoven premiered his first ballet The Creatures of Prometheus at the same location.

Following these successes, Beethoven published his second symphony in 1803. The first performance of Symphony No. 2 in D major (Op. 36) took place at the Theater an der Wien in a concert that also featured Beethoven’s third piano concerto (Op. 37) and his only oratorio Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives, Op.85). The latter, which Beethoven claimed to have written in only two weeks, portrayed the emotional torment Jesus experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion. Six years later, the oratorio premiered in the United States where it became Beethoven’s first success in America. 

As well as composing, Beethoven worked as a teacher. Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) and Carl Czerny (1791-1857) are among the more successful of Beethoven’s pupils, but he taught a wide range of students over time, including women. In 1799, Beethoven became the piano tutor of the daughters of Hungarian Countess Anna Brunsvik. During this time, he fell in love with one of the daughters, Josephine (1779-1821), although nothing ever came of the relationship. Nonetheless, letters survive that indicate there may have been a secret romance.

Other letters, however, indicate Beethoven had feelings for another of his students, Countess Julie Guicciardi (1784-1856). Considering himself to be in a lower social class, Beethoven never pursued a relationship, but in 1802 he dedicated his Sonata Op. 27 No. 2 to Julie. After his death, this sonata became better known by the name Moonlight Sonata.

In the early 1800s, Beethoven began to experience hearing loss. At first, he attributed this to a fit he suffered in 1798, after which he struggled with severe tinnitus. From descriptions in letters to his friends and brothers, Beethoven likely had osteosclerosis (abnormal bone growth in the inner ear) and a degenerative auditory nerve.

Beethoven moved to Heiligenstadt on the outskirts of Vienna to come to terms with his diagnosis. Surviving letters suggest Beethoven had mixed feelings about his condition. Mostly, he seemed upbeat, but one letter suggests he once considered suicide. Although Beethoven never became entirely deaf, it became increasingly difficult to play at concerts. As a result, he began to withdraw socially.

Nonetheless, Beethoven did not let his condition prevent him from composing. In a letter to a friend, he stated he would “seize Fate by the throat; it shall certainly not crush me completely.” Beethoven made no secret of his hearing loss, and he could still hear music and voices until around 1812.

Most likely because of his diagnosis, Beethoven’s music style dramatically changed. On his return to Vienna, he told his pupils, “I am not satisfied with the work I have done so far. From now on I intend to take a new way.” This attitude resulted in his Third Symphony in E flat Op. 55, or the Eroica, in 1804. Beethoven initially wrote the symphony with Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) in mind because he admired the ideal of the heroic revolutionary leader. When Napoleon declared himself emperor, Beethoven became disillusioned with the man and renamed the symphony from Intitolata Bonaparte (Titled Bonaparte) to Sinfonia Eroica – composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grande Uomo (Heroic Symphony – Composed to celebrate the memory of a great man).

Critics noticed the change in Beethoven’s style. They commented on the dramatic nature of the music, particularly his best-known Symphony No.5 in C Major (Op. 67), which the German author E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) claimed “sets in motion terror, fear, horror, pain, and awakens the infinite yearning that is the essence of romanticism.”

Up until Beethoven began to experience hearing loss, his income came from composing, teaching and performing. As the latter area became more difficult, Beethoven relied heavily on the publications of his music. Some of Beethoven’s patrons offered him yearly stipends in addition to commissions, and he took on his most prestigious pupil, Archduke Rudolf of Austria (1788-1831), the youngest son of Emperor Leopold II (1747-92). The Archduke and Beethoven soon became firm friends, and Beethoven dedicated a number of his works to Rudolf, including the Archduke Piano Trio (Op. 97).

In 1807, Beethoven’s work began to be published in England, giving him a larger following. Although he was becoming a popular name across the continent, it was not enough to keep him financially stable. Beethoven had suffered financially. He had fallen out of favour at the Theater an der Wien due to new management. Also, the French occupation of Vienna between 1803 and 1806 hindered his compositions.

In 1808, a benefit concert was held for Beethoven to boost his funds. Although it was under rehearsed and inferior to Beethoven’s previous concerts, it introduced some of Beethoven’s new compositions. As well as a performance of his Symphony No.5, the concert premiered Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” (Op. 68) and the Choral Fantasy “Fantasia” (Op. 80).

The Napoleonic wars limited the number of commissions Beethoven received, but they began to pick up again in 1809 beginning with the incidental music for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s (1749-1832) play Egmont. Pleased with the result, Beethoven set three of Goethe’s poems to music.

Beethoven fell ill in 1811, suffering headaches and high fevers. Nevertheless, he continued to compose music but moved to the spa town of Teplitz (now in the Czech Republic) on the advice of his doctor. While there, Beethoven had the opportunity to meet Goethe, who wrote  “His talent amazed me; unfortunately he is an utterly untamed personality, who is not altogether wrong in holding the world to be detestable, but surely does not make it any more enjoyable … by his attitude.” Whether Beethoven’s illness or deafness affected his personality is unknown, but Goethe certainly found him despicable. Likewise, Beethoven disliked Goethe’s personality but, putting their differences aside, composed the music for Goethe’s Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op.112).

There is an air of mystery surrounding Beethoven’s personal life, which is heightened by an unsent letter he wrote while staying in Teplitz. Addressed to “Unsterbliche Geliebte” (Immortal Beloved), the letter is scrawled over ten pages and expresses his passionate love for the unknown addressee. Not discovered until after his death, most historians believe the intended recipient was Beethoven’s former pupil Josephine Brunsvik, however, there are many other candidates.

The letter suggests the feelings were mutual, and the debate continues as to the identity of the lady. Beethoven had sent love letters to Josephine in the past, particularly after she became a widow in 1804. She soon married again, but the relationship was strained and worsened over time. Suspicions that she had an affair with Beethoven were raised after the birth of her daughter Minona in 1813 who was born nine months after Josephine had separated from her husband.

Other suggestions for the intended recipient of the letter include former pupil Julie Guicciardi and Josephine’s sister, Therese Brunsvik (1775-1861). Several musicians and singers that worked with Beethoven are also up for debate, for example, Therese Malfatti (1792-1851), an Austrian singer for whom he may have written the piano bagatelle Für Elise – the manuscript was found with her belongings after death.

Beethoven’s love life continues to be a mystery, but no love letters or hints of a relationship seem to occur after 1812. Around this time, Beethoven struggled with his mental and emotional health. His compositions were less frequent, and his physical appearance suffered. Some suggest his failings in love triggered this period, but he was also dealing with a few family issues. His brother Johann was in a relationship with a disreputable woman, which Beethoven tried unsuccessfully to end.

In 1815, his other brother Kaspar passed away from tuberculosis. Both Kaspar’s wife Johanna (1786-1869) and Beethoven became the joint guardians of Kaspar’s son Karl (1806-56), which sparked several legal proceedings. Beethoven wished to place Karl in a private school and, although he eventually won sole custody of his nephew, the legal struggles continued until 1820.

Due to the ongoing problems with his nephew Karl, Beethoven’s output was minimal. He also suffered healthwise with what he called “inflammatory fever”. Between 1815 and 1819, Beethoven’s only works of note were his Hammerklavier Sonata (Op.106) and a musical composition set to poems by Alois Jeitteles (1794-1858).

Evidence suggests Beethoven began working on his ninth symphony in 1818, which coincides with an improvement in health. Unfortunately, his hearing was rapidly deteriorating, making it difficult for him to interact with other people. Several notebooks survive that reveal Beethoven conversed with people through writing rather than speaking. Entire conversations about music, business and personal matters were written out by the participants.

Beethoven rallied in 1819 and was invited by Anton Diabelli (1781-1858) to write a piano variation of his waltz. Other composers invited to do the same included Franz Schubert (1791-1828) and the 8-year-old Franz Liszt (1811-86). The idea was to produce one variation, but Beethoven was determined to outdo the others and composed 20 versions by mid-1819. In total, Beethoven composed 33 variations, known collectively as the 33 Variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli (Op. 120) or the Diabelli Variations.

As well as the variations, Beethoven was motivated by the promotion of Archduke Rudolf to Cardinal-Archbishop, which he wished to honour with a mass. The result was the Missa solemnis in D major (Op. 123), performed for the first time in Saint Petersburg in 1824. Later that year another performance took place in Vienna along with Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (Op. 125).

Symphony No. 9 in D Major is a choral symphony that continues to be one of the most performed symphonies in the world. The final (4th) movement was based on Friedrich Schiller’s (1759-1805) poem Ode to Joy and lasts about 24 minutes. The premiere was a great success and was conducted by Beethoven even though by that time he could not hear the music.

Beethoven himself conducted, that is, he stood in front of a conductor’s stand and threw himself back and forth like a madman. At one moment he stretched to his full height, at the next he crouched down to the floor, he flailed about with his hands and feet as though he wanted to play all the instruments and sing all the chorus parts.

Joseph Böhm (1795-1876), violinist

Another conductor stood by with a baton to conduct the orchestra and choir properly. As a result, when the music finished, Beethoven was a few bars behind and continued to conduct. The contralto Caroline Unger (1803-77) approached Beethoven and turned him around to face the applauding audience. Although Beethoven could not hear the applause, he could see the standing ovation and the raised hats throughout the audience.

Meanwhile, Beethoven’s health continued to deteriorate, adding rheumatism and jaundice to his list of ailments. Despite this, he continued to compose and publish music. He also reconciled with his brother Johann who became a frequent visitor.

Beethoven continued to receive commissions despite his failing health, including a series of string quartets for Prince Nikolai Galitzin (1794-1866). Beethoven’s favourite was his fourteenth and final string quartet of the series (Op. 131), about which the composers Schubert and Robert Schumann (1810-56) enthused. Schumann said String Quartet No. 14 had a “grandeur … which no words can express,” while Schubert exclaimed, “After this, what is left for us to write?”

Despite being successful in the music world, Beethoven continued to struggle with his family relations. His nephew Karl attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head. Fortunately, he survived and was sent with his uncle to the Austrian village Gneixendorf to recuperate. Whilst there, Beethoven wrote his final major work String Quartet No. 16 in F major (Op. 135), which he dedicated to his patron Johann Wolfmayer.

On his return journey from Gneixendorf in December 1826, Beethoven was taken ill. Doctors noted Beethoven had signs of jaundice, breathing difficulties and severe fluid retention in his limbs. News of his condition spread quickly; he received a large number of visitors, including previous pupils and other composers. Those who could not attend his bedside, for instance, the London Philharmonic Society, sent gifts of money and wine.

On 26th March 1827, Beethoven passed away at the age of 56, leaving his nephew Karl as his sole heir. Anselm Hüttenbrenner (1794-1868), an Austrian composer and friend of Beethoven who was present at his death, reported there was a clap of thunder at 5 pm and “Beethoven opened his eyes, lifted his right hand and looked up for several seconds with his fist clenched … not another breath, not a heartbeat more.” Many people visited Beethoven on his death-bed to pay their respects. An autopsy revealed severe liver damage, likely due to heavy alcohol consumption.

Beethoven’s funeral took place in Vienna on 29th March 1827 and was attended by over 10,000, thus proving how successful he was in life. Franz Schubert was among the torchbearers and, after a requiem mass at the Dreifaltigkeitskirche (Church of the Holy Trinity), they buried Beethoven in the Währing cemetery. His body has since been reinterred in the Vienna Central Cemetery adjacent to Schubert’s grave.

Ludwig van Beethoven continues to rank among the most played classical composers and is one of the most admired musicians in the history of Western music. During his 45 year career, Beethoven wrote over 772 works, including nine symphonies, nine concertos, 16 string quartets, 32 sonatas, and one opera: Fidelio. He lived his life believing “music is a higher revelation than philosophy” and “music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman”. For Beethoven, music was life; he will live on through his compositions forever more.

Plaudite, amici, comedia finita est. (Applaud, my friends, the comedy is over.)

Beethoven on his deathbed

Handel with Care

“… 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.

george_frideric_handel_by_balthasar_denner

George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner c1726-28

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. 

508px-georg_friedrich_hc3a4ndel_3

The Chandos Portrait of Georg Friedrich Händel, attr. James Thornhill, c1720

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.

charles_jennens

Charles Jennens by Mason Chamberlin, mid-18th century

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 ChorusMessiah 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.

G.F.Handel

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.”