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George Frideric Handel

(1685 - 1759)

Music's Influence

George Frideric Handel was born in Halle, Germany, on February 23, 1685. Even as a small boy he was very musical. This caused problems for Handel because his father hated music. Handel's father believed that anyone involved with music had a weak character. His father insisted that he study to become a rich, secure lawyer. To be sure of that, he forbade Handel to play musical instruments.

Many Europeans of Handel's day strongly agreed that music was a bad influence. They were encouraged to be quiet, work hard and follow the rules of their religion. Doing things because they were enjoyable wasn't approved. Many people believed God would disapprove of people who enjoyed music and having fun. They were afraid that the feelings music aroused would make people lose self-control.

Does music affect your emotions?

A Fast Learner

We know Handel learned to play the organ and clavichord. How he got his hands on them we're not exactly sure. There is a story that his mother smuggled a clavichord up to their attic for him. (Just so you know, a clavichord is a small piano-like instrument.) The clavichord strings were covered with cloth to muffle the sound. Handel quietly practised on it every night and his father never heard. Sometime later, a duke overheard the eight-year-old Handel playing the organ. The duke was so impressed that he talked Handel's father into letting the boy take music lessons.

Handel's first music teacher was F.W. Zachau, the Lutheran church organist in Halle. Three years later, Handel knew everything his teacher knew about music. George played the clavichord, the organ, the harpsichord and the violin. He also understood composition, harmony and counterpoint. Not bad for an 11-year-old.

Change

Handel's dad thought Handel had learned too much music. He ordered Handel to return from a trip to Berlin. George arrived home just in time to say good-bye to his dying 74-year-old father.

For seven years Handel honoured his father's wishes and studied to be a lawyer. In his spare time he wrote cantatas for church services and worked as a church organist. Finally, an 18-year-old George Frideric Handel chose music over law. He moved to Hamburg, Germany so he could gain more musical knowledge and skills.

Travels

In Hamburg, Handel got a job as a second violinist at the city's famous opera house. He soon displayed his skills on the harpsichord when another musician failed to show up. Johann Mattheson and Handel worked together at the opera house. For a little while, they were friends. Johann was a 22-year-old composer, singer and music theorist.

They had a quarrel over how one of Johann's operas should be performed. The quarrel turned into a duel. It was a good thing that men's fashions of that time included large metal coat buttons. Johann's sword split as it hit one of Handel's buttons. Handel's musical career nearly ended before it started.

Handel moved to Italy to learn from Italian opera composers. It was another turning point in his life.
He soaked up everything he could learn from all Italy's great composers and performers.

At 26 years old, George Handel moved to London, England, and produced operas. Although he made several trips back to Germany, Handel made England his permanent home. At the age of 35, Handel became the music director of the Royal Academy of Music. He held that position for eight years until the Academy closed. After opera, Handel made the English oratorio a popular music form. The oratorio brought Handel's music back into popularity.

Handel's Best Work

Oratorios are basically operas without costumes and scenery. In them a chorus of singers tells a story by singing it to the audience. Usually the story is taken from the Bible.

Messiah is Handel's best-known oratorio. Many consider it to be the greatest oratorio ever written. It is often performed around Christmas. It has three segments: the coming of the Messiah, the suffering and death of Christ, and the Resurrection. Messiah contains 50 sections and takes 2 ½ hours to perform.

Handel wrote this oratorio in 25 days. He hardly ate and rarely slept during that time. Handel acknowledged God as the force behind the composing of the oratorio, Messiah.

At the first London performance of Messiah, England's King George II stood during the "Hallelujah Chorus". No one knows exactly why the king stood up, but everyone else followed his example. It has become a tradition for everyone to stand for the Hallelujah Chorus.

George Frideric Handel composed many wonderful works; including his "The Cuckoo and the Nightingale" concerto, the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, and the Music for the Royal Fireworks. Music for the Royal Fireworks was composed to celebrate a peace treaty. Handel even wrote fireworks into this composition. At one of the performances, the fireworks started a fire. A park building burned down and the frightened audience quickly went home.

What Was Handel Really Like?

Handel had a very quick temper. He often yelled at performers if they didn't do things his way. He was very demanding. He ate and drank way too much. Handel was also a very funny man. He used English, French, Italian and German, all mixed up together, to tell his great stories, just as he combined the music styles of those countries to compose his musical works.

Handel was a huge, gruff man with an awkward walk. Londoners called him the "great bear".

What Happened to the "Great Bear"?

When Handel was 52-years-old he had a stroke. It temporarily paralyzed his right arm and stopped him from performing. The stroke also affected Handel's mind. His thoughts did not focus as well after that.

At 65, Handel was blind in one eye. Later, he went completely blind. By that time in his life, Handel only wanted to concentrate on his music. Without his eyesight it was very hard to do that. Handel could still play the organ and concertos from memory, and improvised musical scores.

Handel never married and had no children. He left a sizable estate to a niece in Germany. He also gave gifts to his other relations, servants, friends and favourite charities.

Handel was one of several creative people who helped the European public accept personal expression. He encouraged people to show their respect for God by supporting social causes.

Whether the dramatic situation called for joy, sadness, fear or excitement, Handel composed music to express those feelings. Because George Frideric Handel didn't keep those emotions to himself, the world is a richer place. Handel died on 14 April 1759 in London.