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Georg Friedrich Händel
Georg Friedrich Händel


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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. In 1710 Handel was appointed Kapellmeister to the Duke of Hanover. But neglect of his duties there began almost immediately when he took up a commission to compose an Italian opera for London. The resulting work, Rinaldo, opened in February 1711 and was a terrific success. Dismissal from his Hanover post in 1713 allowed Handel to return to London to capitalise on the success of the 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. 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.

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