Lesson 26: Handel

Lesson 26: Handel

George Frideric Handel:

Our last Baroque composer to study is George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Handel is what we can call an "international composer" (from Concise History of Western Music) when compared to other Baroque composers. He was educated in Germany and Italy and spent much of his life as a composer in England.

Handel's father was a barber-surgeon who relented and let his son study music rather than law. When Handel was 11, he was good enough on the organ to compose and teach lessons. Later he became a violinist and harpsichordist in the orchestra of the Hamburg opera house. One of his operas was produced there when he was 20.

He then spent three years in Italy where he wrote popular Italian operas. Handel wrote 39 Italian operas in total, mostly based on ancient Greek myths or Roman history. They are not too popular today but are still being produced by various opera companies around the world.

In 1710, he returned to Germany and began working as music director for Elector Georg Ludwig of Hanover. But after only a month, he asked for leave to go to London to hear his opera Rinaldo, which was being produced there. He asked to go again to London the following year and stayed from 1712-1759.

Here are two arias from two of Handel's operas:

Handel was loved in England. When Queen Anne died, it turned out that her successor was none other than the Elector Georg Ludwig of Hanover. Therefore, he became King of England. Thankfully, he forgave Handel for abandoning his post and increased Handel's composing salary. The king was thoroughly grateful for the coronation music that Handel composed for him: Water Music (called that because it was played from a barge while the new king floated down the Thames River).

Then, listen to Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks:

Handel wrote some great Italian opera (beloved of the aristocratic class) while in London and was music director of the Royal Academy of Music there. When it folded in 1719, he focused more on writing oratorios.


One genre of music that Handel helped to develop to its full potential was the oratorio. An oratorio is just like an opera in that it is a large-scale composition that tells a story; it's for chorus, soloists, and orchestra; it contains choruses, arias, duets, recitatives, and orchestral interludes; and the recitatives weave the story together. The main difference is that it contains no acting, scenery, or costumes. It is performed with everyone on stage (the orchestra is not in the orchestra pit) and the soloists stand out front. Usually, oratorios are based on biblical stories but aren't meant for church services as cantatas are. Oratorios are also much longer than cantatas (2 hours rather than 30 minutes).

The English loved hearing music (finally) in their own language, as the oratorios that Handel wrote were. They knew the Old Testament stories and preferred seeing them on stage rather than the fanciful mythological stories of Handel's operas.

Oratorios were performed during Lent, when operas were forbidden. They were easier to produce since they required no sets, stage machinery, or costumes; and the middle-class was now an audience. Handel even played organ concertos in between acts. Some of his oratorios include Israel in Egypt, Saul, Joshua, and Judas Maccabaeus.

Handel died in 1759. His funeral at Westminster Abbey was attended by 3,000 mourners.

Messiah, Handel's most famous oratorio, was composed in 1741 and first performed in Dublin. It is different from his other oratorios in that it has a New Testament subject (rather than Old Testament), and although it uses Scripture for its text, it doesn't have the type of plot or storyline that his other oratorios do. In total it is 2 1/2 hours long; therefore, it's amazing that he wrote it in only 24 days! It was highly received at the first performance in Ireland but took about a decade to receive the same acclaim in London.

Messiah is in English and uses a choir, five soloists, and an orchestra. It was originally written for Easter and had its debut at Musick Hall in Dublin, Ireland, on April 13, 1742. It is now a fixture of the Christmas season. The full story of Messiah is of Jesus' nativity, passion, resurrection, and ascension.

It's divided into 3 parts:

Part I- Prophecies by Isaiah and the Annunciation of the Shepherds at the Birth of Jesus

Part II- The Passion of Christ (ends with the Hallelujah Chorus)

Part III- Resurrection and Glorification of Christ in Heaven

The libretto (lyrics to be sung) was written by a devout believer in Jesus and in Scriptural authority named Charles Jennens. Many of the words come from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Each of the three parts are divided into scenes. Each scene contains recitatives (a form of singing similar to speaking to relate the song before it to the song after it), arias (a song sung by a soloist), and choruses. There are also two instrumental pieces.

Handel signed it S.D.G., which stands for Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone the glory). The original manuscript of 259 pages is in the British Library. According to tradition, when Messiah debuted in London in 1743, King George II stood during the "Hallelujah" Chorus. When he stood, all others stood. It's been a tradition to stand during the song ever since.

Listen to these pieces from Messiah.

Comfort Ye, My People (accompanied recitative for tenor, strings, and basso continuo):

He Shall Feed His Flock:

Ev'ry Valley Shall Be Exalted (aria for tenor, strings, and basso continuo):

For Unto Us a Child is Born (chorus, basso continuo):

Hallelujah Chorus:

The next video contains the entire Messiah oratorio:

Spend some more time listening to great Handel music with the following videos:


Arrival of the Queen of Sheba:

"I should be sorry, my Lord, if I have only succeeded in entertaining them; I wished to make them better."

~George Frideric Handel, to Lord Kinnoull after the first London performance of Messiah

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