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George Frideric (or Frederick) Handel (1685 -1759) was a British and German Baroque composer who spent the bulk of his career in London, becoming well known for his operas, oratorios, anthems, and organ concertos.

Born in the German town of Halle in 1685, Handel studied briefly at the University of Halle, before moving to Hamburg in 1703, where he served as a violinist in the opera orchestra and subsequently as harpsichordist and composer.

Handel began his own operatic career with Almira (1704), which ran for some twenty performances. After several more successes, he sought richer operatic experience and left for Italy in 1706. His Italian journey resulted in two fine operas, Rodrigo (1707) and Agrippina (1709), several dramatic chamber works, and equally dramatic sacred compositions. In 1710, Handel became Kapellmeister to German prince George, the Elector of Hanover, who in 1714 would become King George I of Great Britain and Ireland. A meeting with the manager of the King’s Theatre furnished Handel with a chance to compose an opera. Within two weeks he produced the opera Rinaldo, which marked the high point of the London season in 1710 and 1711.  

He proceeded to compose a large amount of music for harpsichord, chamber ensembles, and orchestra, as well as various works for royal occasions.

"Portrait of  George Frideric Handel"

Author Rinat Kuramshin

Handel’s compositions so impressed England’s Queen Anne (1665–1714) that she awarded him an annual salary of two hundred pounds. After Anne’s death, George I (1660–1727) became king of England.

In 1715 Handel provided music for a royal pleasure cruise for the King - the famous Water Music. In 1719 Handel accepted an invitation to join forces with the newly founded Royal Academy of Music.

In 1726 Handel became a citizen of England and was appointed composer of music to the Chapel Royal. The season of 1727 saw the production of Handel’s Alessandro.

Within fifteen years, Handel had started three commercial opera companies to supply the English nobility with Italian opera. Musicologist Winton Dean writes that his operas show that «Handel was not only a great composer; he was a dramatic genius of the first order». As Alexander’s Feast (1736) was well received, Handel made a transition to English choral works. After his success with Messiah (1742) he never composed an Italian opera again. Handel’s ultimate failure with operas was offset 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 established a new vogue (fashion), in which Handel fared better with London audiences than he ever had with Italian opera. As if to test a possible market for dramatic compositions in English, Handel revived past operas with revisions to the oratorio style, meeting with much success.

Interior of the Covent Garden Theatre

in London

Handel House at 25 Brook Street, Mayfair, London

Handel (centre) and King George Ion the River Thames, 17 July 1717, by E.Hamman (1819-1888)

The Queen’s Theatre in the Haymarket in London by William

Born the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti, Handel is regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Baroque era, with works such as Messiah, Water Music, and Music for the Royal Fireworks remaining steadfastly popular. One of his four coronation anthems, Zadok the Priest (1727), composed for the coronation of George II, has been performed at every subsequent British coronation, traditionally during the sovereign’s anointing. Another of his English oratorios, Solomon (1748), has also remained popular, with the Sinfonia that opens act 3 (known more commonly as «The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba») featuring at the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony.

Handel’s compositions include 42 operas, 29 oratorios, more than 120 cantatas, trios and duets, numerous arias, chamber music, a large number of ecumenical pieces, odes and serenatas, and 16 organ concerti. His most famous work, the oratorio Messiah with its «Hallelujah» chorus, is among the most popular works in choral music and has become the centrepiece of the Christmas season.

Among the works with opus numbers published and popularised in his lifetime are the Organ Concertos Op. 4 and Op. 7, together with the Opus 3 and Opus 6 concerti grossi; the latter incorporate an earlier organ concerto The Cuckoo and the Nightingale in which birdsong is imitated in the upper registers of the organ. Also notable are his sixteen keyboard suites, especially The Harmonious Blacksmith.

Since the late 1960s, with the revival of baroque music and historically informed musical performance, interest in Handel’s operas has grown.

Handel has generally been accorded high esteem by fellow composers, both in his own time and since. Bach attempted, unsuccessfully, to meet Handel while he was visiting Halle. Mozart is reputed to have said of him, «Handel understands affect better than any of us. When he chooses, he strikes like a thunder bolt.» To Beethoven he was «the master of us all... the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb.

Almost blind, and having lived in England for nearly fifty years, he died in 1759, a respected and rich man. His funeral was given full state honours, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey in London. After Handel’s death, many composers wrote works based on or inspired by his music.