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Born Georg Friederich Händel, but later known as George Frideric or Frederick Handel, this composer born in Germany in 1685 was musically trained in Italy and lived in England from 1712 till his death in 1759, becoming naturalized in 1727. His music was known to and influenced composers such as Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart, and a number of his works remain popular today.
Born in a province of Brandenburg-Prussia in the same year as Domenico Scarlatti and Johann Sebastian Bach, Handel demonstrated a musical bent very young, becoming an accomplished pipe organist and harpsichordist by the time he was seven. Although his father discouraged Handel’s desire for a career in music, he took keyboard and composition lessons and was given his own spinet.
Handel’s musical education was disrupted first by his father’s death in 1697 and second by his choice to follow his father’s wishes and begin the study of law in 1702. These studies did not last long, and Handel returned to music, becoming the organist of the Protestant Cathedral in Halle. Moving to Hamburg in 1704, he worked as a violinist and harpsichordist in the opera house orchestra. By 1708, four of his early operas had been performed there.
Traveling in Italy from 1706–1709, Handel turned his attention to composing sacred music, and wrote a number of cantatas. In 1707, his first completely Italian opera, Rodrigo was put on in Florence, followed by Agrippina in 1709. He also spent time in Rome, where two oratorios were produced.
Becoming Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover in 1710 was the seed of a great change for Handel, as this was George, soon to become King George I of Great Britain, and the connection occasioned Handel’s move to England. It was here that Handel’s most enduring works were written, including Water Music which was performed on a barge for a water party in July of 1717. Story has it that George I was so enamored of the piece that he had the three suites played three times at the premiere.
In the house that now houses the Handel House Museum, Handel wrote the 1726 opera Scipio, a march from which became the march used by the British Grenadier Guards. In addition, one of the anthems he wrote for King George II’s coronation in 1727—the year he was naturalized—has been played at every British coronation since.
Handel suffered an illness or stroke in 1737, and after his recovery, he composed more oratorios than operas, including the oratorio Messiah, a piece still given hundreds of performances a year in the United States alone. In 1749, he wrote Music for the Royal Fireworks, the premiere of which was heard by 12,000 people. In his later life, he gave benefit performances of his works for charity. Upon his death in 1759, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.
"Messiah" is an essential part of my Christmas every year. I've even been to sing-along Messiahs, which are a lot of fun, even if you don't get the kind of vocal quality you would in a real concert.
While Handel was living in Hamburg, he became acquainted with a number of up and coming musicians from the area. One of these men was Johann Mattheson. Handel played harpsichord in Mattheson's opera "Cleopatra". In one now-legendary instance, Handel refused to let Mattheson play the harpsichord accompaniment to his own work, and this confrontation led to a swordfight. According to the perhaps apocryphal story, Mattheson would have killed the young Handel except that his sword's point was blocked by a button on the young composer's jacket.
I've always thought this was a funny piece of music legend. It seems music debauchery didn't start with the rock star...