Georg Friederich Händel in the German registry office, Handel for the French, Giorgio Federico Hendel in Italy or George Frideric Handel in England, was an important Baroque composer and musician with a great cosmopolitan spirit.
Born in the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti he, unlike the first one, did not come from a family of musicians, on the contrary he embarked on this career against the wishes of his father.
He undertook the study of music from 1696 under the guidance of F. W. Zachow, a German composer, thanks to whom he learned to play the violin, the organ, the harpsichord, the oboe and learned solid bases of counterpoint as well as mastering the art of the Italian “doppia fuga“.
After Zachow‘s death in 1712, Händel became a benefactor of his family, out of gratitude for his teaching, and went under the guidance of Bach himself. Händel continued to quote Zachow‘s music within his compositions, using above all the instrumental timbre choices.
Like his second teacher, he acquired great mastery of the art of composing by copying works by the great German and, especially, Italian musicians. From the beginning he remained faithful to the simple Italian use of counterpoint.
Highly regarded from an early age, at 17 he obtained his first job as an organist of the Halle Cathedral.
Birth and evolution of a composer
Händel‘s creative life can be divided into three periods:
- the German period until 1706,
- the Italian period, on the occasion of his trip to Italy in 1707
- the English period from 1711 to 1759.
The apprenticeship period
The defining event of this period was the decision to abandon law studies and go to Hamburg, an important center for the production of secular music, where he worked as a violinist and harpsichordist at the Hamburg opera. The first important contribution to church music was the “Passione secondo S. Giovanni” in 1704. In this composition, Händel took the first step in the direction of an oratorial work in which the links with the liturgy were no longer so strong and evident. Here, in fact, we do not find “Corali” but accompanied”Recitativi secchi” and operatic style Arias. We find no trace of the “Cantus firmus” that distinguishes the church cantatas, but Händel follows a compositional line that will lead directly to the musical form of the “Opera”.
In Hamburg he wrote four operas but only the first one survives, “Almira” from 1705, where we find “Bassi ostinati”, used in the main voice of the Arias, more frequently than in subsequent operas. Otherwise, the central voice is developed as a bass on a pattern. The numerous instrumental pieces mostly adopt the Italian style.
After these first Operas, Händel realized that to continue his education he would have to turn to the European center of the Opera, Italy, where he went in 1710.
The Italian period
In 1710 he went to Italy and this experience impressed the definitive seal on his training. Händel, already an expert in the art of counterpoint and rich in melodic inventiveness, lacked the “Cantabile” style of the melody that is the characteristic of the Italian “Bel Canto“. In this time he frequented the most musically important cities: Florence, Rome, Naples and Venice. He came into contact with great musicians such as Alessandro Scarlatti, Bernardo Pasquini, Arcangelo Corelli etc. In Rome he frequented the exclusive circles of nobles and artists. He managed to be welcomed into Arcadia, originally a literary academy. In these refined environments, Händel became familiar with the idyllic-pastoral element and the contemplation of nature which will be fundamental elements of his music.
As soon as he arrived in Italy, Händel directed his compositional choices towards four sectors:
The “Cantata profana”, Catholic sacred music, the Oratory and the Opera.
He was able to experience the full range of his music, from the idyllic to the dramatic.
Most of his Cantatas, over a hundred, belong to this period. They helped him to fully assimilate the Italian style.
The contributions that Händel made to the Opera were successful, so much so that they were decisive for his future as a composer.
Works such as “Rodrigo” and “Agrippina” written for the Venice carnival of 1709, show that he had become a composer of European level, equal to his Italian contemporaries.
The English period
Händel arrived in England, for the first absolute performance of the opera “Rinaldo“, was 1711. He was paradoxically considered the authentic representative of Italian art, so much so that he was put in contrast with the Neapolitan Nicola Porpora, the most important composer in that time.
The “Rinaldo” in London was an overwhelming success. It was the first of 40 works composed over the span of thirty years, and all of them had unprecedented success.
This colossal production does not follow a compositional orientation or a predetermined development.The compositions are centered on an idea of “Opera seria” with a very high level of perfection.
Händel‘s compositions include 42 Operas, 25 Oratorios, more than 120 Cantatas, Trios and Duets, numerous Arias, Chamber music, a large number of ecumenical pieces, Odes and Serenades, 18 “Concerti grossi“s and 12 Organ Concertos. His most famous work, the Messiah Oratorio, with its “Hallelujah” choir, is among the most popular works of choral music and has become the centerpiece of the Christmas season. Lobkowicz Palace in Prague holds Mozart‘s copy of the Messiah, complete with handwritten annotations.
Händel introduced previously uncommon musical instruments into his works: the Viola d’amore and the Violetta marina (Orlando), the Lute (Ode for the day of St. Cecilia), three Trombones (Saul), Clarinets or small high Trumpets (Tamerlano ), Theorbo, Horn (Water Music), Lyrichord, Contrabassoon, Viola da gamba, Carillon (bell carillon), Positive Organ, and Harp (Julius Caesar, Feast of Alexander)
Among these compositions are also included the contributions he made to Anglican sacred music. The composition of the oratories constituted a secondary activity for him. In fact, although he was already famous as an Italian teacher, he began to study again to learn the polyphonic musical style of English music, which he did with great skill. With “Israel in Egypt” the oratory took its final form.
He composed using English texts. The first compositions are the “Te Deum” and “Giubilate” of 1713 and the “Birthday Ode to Queen Anne” of 1714. Händel shows a certain uneasiness with the English language, obviously mastered by his contemporary Henry Purcell, but surpasses him for the vast dimensions of his music and for the melodic pathos. He replaces Purcell‘s the characteristic dotted rhythms with the majesty of late Baroque harmonies.
The Instrumental music
Instrumental music was developed throughout his life and it is not possible to date it precisely because the works that were published, was entirely printed after 1720. All of its production is attributable to the Italian style.
The four harpsichord collections contain a miscellany of nearly all musical forms and styles of the time. We find alongside Italian church sonatas, Concert Sonatas in the style of Domenico Scarlatti, French Ouvertures and Ciacconas, Variations on a theme in German style and Preludes and Fugues as well as the Suites that give the title to the first collection “Suites de pieces”.
Chamber music includes op 1, 15 Sonatas for solo instrument (Flute, Oboe or Violin) and Continuo and Op. 2 and op. 5, Sonatas a tre, and in no other composition can we find the influence of Corelli as in these compositions.
Most of the Sonatas are modeled after the form of the Church Sonatas, but both the number of movements as well as the occasional addition of dances mean that the limits of the musical form are overstepped.
The “Concerti Grossi” represents his most significant contribution to the instrumental music. The “6 Concerts for Oboe and Strings” op. 3, the “12 Concerts for solo strings” op. 6 and the “Organ Concerts” op. 4 and op. 7 raise the Italian “Concerto Grosso” to the highest level of Baroque entertainment by paying a tribute to Corelli even if, in terms of size and thematic precision, they are more similar to Vivaldi‘s innovative school.
Händel in his compositions used to “steal” from his own music or that of others, ending up creating discussions among scholars on this activity of “plagiarism”. He took ideas wherever he liked without ever acknowledging his “debt” to his sources. In fact normally, as Mattheson stated, the repayment of those debts with interest was expected. Händel in some cases uses integral parts taken from the compositions of others then, thanks to real flashes of genius, he modifies the original greatly improving it. It is remarkable how the sections he appropriates fit into the whole composition without any stylistic inconsistency.
The Music passion
Händel‘s father did not approve of studying music, which is a real shame as his son liked it. His father was furious and forbade him to keep musical instruments in the house and even to go to any other house where there were. But Georg Friedric had other plans. He somehow managed to get a small clavichord (the least noisy of all instruments), sneaked it into the attic, and when everyone in the family was asleep, he went upstairs and studied.
The duel with Mattheson
On December 5, 1704, a quarrel broke out between the two over the execution of “Cleopatra” by Mattheson. The composer was singing the part of Antonio while Händel played the harpsichord. Mattheson normally used to play the harpsichord himself, after Antonio’s death, which comes soon in the drama. Händel refused to satisfy his will by giving him his place. This episode caused such a disagreement that their arguments degenerated into struggle. The two young people roll on the stage, to the applause of the audience and the singers. Upon leaving the theater, Mattheson slapped Händel, the two took out their swords and began to duel on the Market Square in front of the Opera House. Fortunately, Mattheson‘s sword pointing to the heart broke against a metal button of Händel‘s jacket, putting an end to the fight; and they were reconciled shortly thereafter. Following the rapid reconciliation, Mattheson tells us that on the 30th of the same month he accompanied the young composer to the rehearsal of his first opera “Almira” in the theater, which performed the main part there. This Opera, although rehearsed at the end of 1704, was not performed in public until the beginning of 1705, gaining great acclaim. Mattheson continued to be friend with Händel, often going to London as an ambassador.
The concourse of the public at the first performance of Händel‘s “Messiah” was impressive, it was estimated the presence of about 700 people. In anticipation of this, it was considered appropriate to invite the kind ladies of the aristocracy to refrain from wearing the usual “guarde-infant ”, which would have made their clothes too bulky.
The Messiah was certainly the centerpiece of Händel career. On April 6, 1759, the composer made his last public appearance conducting the “Messiah” in London. Eight days later he died at the age of 74. About 3,000 people attended his funeral, held at Westminster Abbey.