Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Handel, George Frideric

Handel was born on 1685 one month before J.S. Bach, in Halle, Germany. He was not from a musical family. His father, who was a barber-surgeon and a valet at a court near Leipzig, disapproved of music, and wanted the boy to study law. It is said that Handel secretly studied music at night by candlelight. In difference to his father's wishes, Handel studied law for a year at Halle, one of Germany's major universities. By the time he was nine, his musical talent was so outstanding that he was allowed to study with a local organist and composer. By eleven, he himself was able to compose and give organ lessons. At 18, he set out for Hamburg, where he became violinist and harpsichordist in the orchestra, Germany's leading center of opera. In 1706, he journeyed to the homeland of opera and scored big successes in Venice, Florence, and Rome. Though he became a court musician for the elector of Hanover, in northern Germany he kept requesting (and extending) leaves to pursue his career in London, a city that was then beginning to rival Paris as the world capital.

here Handel continued to produce Italian operas, again with great success, He also wrote a flattering birthday ode for Queen Anne and some big pieces to celebrate a major peace treaty; for this he was awarded an annuity. In 1717, after the Elector of Hanover had become George I of England, Handel got back into his good graces by composing music to be played on boats in a royal aquatic fete on the River Thames- the famous Water Music (two suites for the Baroque Festive Orchestra). As an opera composer, Handel had learned to guage the taste of the public and also how to flatter singers, writing music for them that showed off their voices to the best advantage. He became an opera impresario -today we would call him a promoter- recruiting singers and negotiating their contracts, planning whole seasons of opera and all the while composing the main attractions himself: an opera every year on average, between 1721 and 1743.

Handel made and lost several fortunes, but he always landed on his feet, even when Italian opera went out of style in Britain, for he never lost a feel for his audience. After opera had failed, he popularized oratorios-retellings of Bible stories (mostly from the Old Testament) in a seioperatic, semi-choral form.

Handel was a big vigorous man, hot-tempered but quick to forget, humorous and resourceful. When a particularly temperamental prima donna had a tantrum, he calmed her down by threatening to throw her out the window. At the end of his life he became blind-the same surgeon operated (unsuccessfully) on both him and Bach- but he continued to play the organ brilliantly and composed by dictating to a secretary.

When he died in 1759, 3,000 mourners attended his funeral in Westminster Abbey. Handel was stubborn, wealthy, generous, and cultivated. But above all, he was a master composer whose dramatic sense has rarely been equaled.