Repertory Archive

George Frederic Handel



George Frederic Handel was born at Halle, in Saxony, in 1685, and died in London in 1759 at the age of 74. Born in the same year as Bach and living nine years longer, Handel sprang from similar North German middle-class stock and was reared in the same North German Protestant environment, representing, like Bach, the climax of the later contrapuntal school. However, Handel’s life and art nevertheless followed a very different couse. In both domains Bach may be called intensive, and Handel extensive.

After a childhood in which music steadily asserted its claims in the teeth of parental displeasure, Handel became a violinist in the opera orchestra of Hamburg, and then, at twenty-one, went to Italy, a century earlier the birthplace (as it was still the favored home) of opera. Here he acquired a high reputation as a performer on the harpsichord and organ, and underwent the process of Italianization whlch affected all his later composition.

On his return he accepted the position of director of music to the Elector of Hanover, but soon left for England, of which a few years later his Elector, as it happened, became King. London operatic enterprises, first successful and then (through the excessive cost of performance and production, which is always the dangerous burden borne by this branch of art) a failure, were followed by the period of oratorio composition which produced what was for the next century and a half to prove that part of Handel’s legacy capable of maintaining in splendor his golden reputation in the minds of crowds of music lovers in Britain and other countries.

During the earlier years of the twentieth century considerable revival of the operas was seen, chiefly in German theatres; the oratorios had previously fallen away in popularity, with the exception of the two or three, of which the greatest and most imperishable is Messiah.

Oxford Companion of Music, 10th Edition