George Frideric Handel

Handel's Life & Works

Master of all genres, whose music unites the best of Italian, German, French and English Baroque style.

(1685 - 1759)

Early Life and Career

Opera dominated Handel's career, yet for several centuries he was better known for his oratorios and instrumental works. He forged a personal idiom by taking Italian traditions and adding in elements of German counterpoint and dance forms from France. The result was a uniquely cosmopolitan style which, when Handel took it to London, would expand to embrace the musical legacy of the English Restoration composer, Henry Purcell.

Handel's first music lessons were with Carl Zachow, organist at the Halle Marienkirche. Zachow instructed the young Handel in the German traditions of counterpoint and harmony. After a year in the post of organist at Halle Cathedral, Handel moved in 1703 to Hamburg. Here he served an apprenticeship at north Germany's most important opera house. His first operas, Almira and Nero, were written for the Hamburg stage in 1705. But backstage tensions soon led Handel to resign his position.

He arrived in Italy, then the most musically significant country in Europe, in 1706, working first in provincial cities including Florence. A year later, he reached Rome, where he displayed his impressive contrapuntal skills with Dixit Dominus, composed an oratorio, La Resurrezione, and is said to studied the concertos of Arcangelo Corelli. He visited Naples and then Venice, where he scored the greatest success of his Italian years with the opera Agrippina.


When composing the celebrated Hallelujah Chorus, Handel said it was 'as if I saw God on his throne, and all his angels around him.'

George Frideric Handel Messiah, HWV 56 "Hallelujah" (Pt.2) Gabrieli Players, Paul McCreesh, Gabrieli Consort

Water Music Suites Nos 1-3

Following its premiere aboard the King's barge on the Thames, Handel's Water Music was played in halls, taverns and gardens across England.

George Frideric Handel Water Music Suite No.1 in F, HWV 348 1. Ouverture (Grave - Allegro) Simon Standage, Elizabeth Wilcock, The English Concert, Trevor Pinno

Music for the Royal Fireworks

Brilliant orchestral suite first performed in Green Park against the backdrop of torrential rain and a spectacular disaster in which rogue rockets ignited the main firework storage tent.

George Frideric Handel Music For The Royal Fireworks, HWV 351 (1749) La Réjouissance Wolfgang Meyer, Berliner Philharmoniker, Rafael Kubelik

Arrival of the Queen of Sheba (from Solomon)

When the London public tired of Italian opera, Handel re-invented himself with the English oratorio, including Solomon, which features the dazzling prelude Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.

George Frideric Handel Solomon HWV 67 The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba (Act 3) The English Concert, Trevor Pinnock

Israel in Egypt

This most electrifying of Handel's oratorios, overflowing with dramatic choruses, was saved from oblivion by zealous Victorian choral societies.

George Frideric Handel Israel In Egypt, HWV 54 No.5 Air: "Their land brought forth frogs" (Part 1: Exodus) Grace Bumbry, The Utah Symphony, Maurice Abravanel

Serse (Xerxes)

Romantic intrigues, military manoeuvres and an aria sung by a despot to a plane tree, 'Ombra mai fu', later known as Handel's Largo.

George Frideric Handel Serse, HWV 40 "Ombra mai fù" (Act 1) Rolando Villazón, Gabrieli Players, Paul McCreesh

Giulio Cesare in Egitto

One of the most successful of Handel's Italian operas, which tells the story of Caesar's encounters with Cleopatra and Ptolemy, her murderous brother.

George Frideric Handel Giulio Cesare in Egitto HWV 17 No.1 Coro "Viva, viva il nostro Alcide!" (Atto primo) Magdalena Kozená, Anne Sofie von Otter, Bejun Mehta, Pascal Bertin, Jean-Michel Ankaoua, Alan Ewing, Les Musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski


Gripping opera about a sorceress who has spellbound countless men into loving her, until the urn that holds her magical gifts is finally smashed and her power destroyed.

George Frideric Handel Alcina, HWV 34 Ah, mio cor (Act 2) Magdalena Kozená, Venice Baroque Orchestra, Andrea Marcon

Organ Concertos

In between the acts of his oratorios Handel often played organ concertos. These were composed for the concerts he gave at London's pleasure gardens, and had proved a great success.

George Frideric Handel Organ Concerto No.11 in G minor, Op.7 No.5 HWV 310 Menuet Simon Preston, The English Concert, Trevor Pinnock

12 Concerti Grossi, Op.6

One of the great glories of Baroque instrumental music, the Opus 6 Concerti Grossi were a remarkable publishing success in Handel's lifetime.

George Frideric Handel Concerto grosso in D minor, Op.3, No.5 3. Adagio The English Concert, Trevor Pinnock

German and Italian Opera

Further Italian operas followed, as did a period in the service of James Brydges. He was created Duke of Chandos in 1719, and it was for him that Handel composed his Chandos Anthems, and reworked his 1708 Italian serenata, Aci, Galatea e Polifemo into Acis and Galatea, to be performed in the gardens of the Duke's estate. Handel also composed a Te Deum and Jubilate to celebrate the Treaty of Utrecht, ending the War of Spanish Succession in 1713.

That Handel's music replaced an earlier setting of the canticles by Purcell demonstrates his new-found prestige in London society. In 1714, his former employer in Hanover became King of England. In a rapidly expanding city, Italian opera and French theatre thrived under the German monarch. Handel enjoyed two notable operatic successes, Teseo and Amadigi, and one failure, Il pastor fido. But his meteoric rise in popularity began in earnest with the founding of the Royal Academy of Music in 1719.

No relation to the conservatoire that now bears the name, the Academy was an aristocratic consortium for Italian opera in London. The sponsors assumed that competition would improve Handel's creativity and employed two Italian composers, Giovanni Bononcini and Attilio Ariosti. At first Handel was no more successful than Bononcini, but anti-Catholic suspicions were growing in London, making a German Protestant seem the more trustworthy choice.

Handel struck with a run of three masterpieces: Giulio Cesare (February 1724), Tamerlano (Oct 1724) and Rodelinda (Feb 1725). With these he established his pre-eminence in characterisation, dramaturgy and orchestral colour. But the three operas proved to be the high point of the Royal Academy's activities, and it closed in 1728 facing financial problems and stiff competition from other companies.

Handel's operatic fortunes revived in the 1730s. He scored successes with Orlando (1733) and Alcina (1735). Both works include innovative dramatic ideas, Orlando with its mad scene, and Alcina with the destruction of the island on which it is set. The composer was also now moving into other musical activities. He made appearances as an organist, and also returned to writing oratorios.

Sacred Music and Later Works

By the late 1730s, Handel's oratorios had become an important part of London musical life. He approached the form from an operatic perspective, and the works were mostly performed in theatres, albeit with fewer musicians than his operas. In the 19th century, a massed-choir performing tradition developed around Handel's oratorios, but they were originally much more intimate works.

Oratorios gave Handel scope to devise many ways of setting English words to music, sometimes shifting the natural accents to create a more memorable melodic line as in 'I know that my Redeemer liveth' (Messiah). Although based on religious subjects, his oratorios were often motivated by political events. The Occasional Oratorio (1746) and the overtly triumphalist Judas Maccabaeus (1747) were both connected with the Jacobite rebellion (1745) and its bloody defeat at Culloden in 1746.

In between the acts of his oratorios Handel often played organ concertos. These were composed for the concerts he gave at London's pleasure gardens, and had proved a great success. In 1738, the owner of the Vauxhall pleasure gardens commissioned a statue of Handel from the sculptor Louis François Roubiliac. By the 1740s, the composer had become a national icon. He was naturalised as a British citizen in 1727, changing his name from Georg Friedrich Händel to George Frideric Handel.

Although born a commoner, Handel moved easily in royal and aristocratic circles. He mixed with the great artists and thinkers of his age, but his personal life was private. He maintained a lively correspondence with the Hamburg-based composer, Georg Philipp Telemann, exchanging tomato plants. He remained unmarried, relying in both musical and domestic matters on his servants, the Schmidts, father and son (who became Smith), particularly after he became blind in 1753.

Handel's music is a synthesis of all the styles he had known since his youth. His borrowings from other composers demonstrate the breadth of his musical knowledge. Adopting some of the angular aspects of German music enabled him to stand apart from the smoother Italian aesthetic. He was skilled at writing simple music, such as the arias 'Verdi prati' (Alcina) and 'Lascia ch'io pianga' (Rinaldo). He could also echo earlier styles without copying them. For instance, 'Cara sposa' uses a contrapuntal style that could almost have come from the viol music of Purcell.

When Handel brought his Italian music to London, he found an audience with a preference for the earlier music of Corelli over more recent Italian styles. So he skilfully updated Corelli's concerto grosso format for his own op.6 set, creating longer structures based on grander harmonic designs. In England, his musical language came to be viewed as the epitome of an old style at its best. This gave him immense influence over English composers, who struggled to move beyond his style until many decades after his death in 1759.