George Frideric Handel: The sacred music maestro who is so much more than the 'Messiah' man

Thursday 1st November 1990

DAVE MASSEY chronicles the life of the ever popular George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759).


Handel was the "Hit Factory" of 18th Century Britain, a high quality Stock, Aitken and Water-Yawn or Lloyd Webber, and it's my belief that if samplers had been around in those days one might have seen G.F.H. in his study, gleefully ripping off bits of Bach and Haydn (He was often accused of plagiarism) on the keys of his Emulator - ready to incorporate into his next blockbuster.

Handel was born in Germany (Halle-Saxony) in 1685, son of a well-to-do barber surgeon who wanted his son to go into law. It was something of a blow to his dad that the young GFH showed considerable talent in the music department, and even more of a blow when royalty - in the shape of the Elector of Brandenburg - told dad that music was a respectable career and the lad should be encouraged. In the end, music got the upper hand, but dad was not around to see it having popped off in 1697. GFH went to Hamburg in the early part of the 1700s anxious to get into opera which at that time was the dominant style over the whole of Europe. To say that his life there was eventful is something of an understatement.. The position of 1st Harpsichord fell vacant in an opera, the 2nd Harpsichord (Handel's senior - he being only 19) demanded the part and GFH, with equal stubbornness, felt that he should have it as he was the superior player... The upshot of all this was that GFH had his way and the other bided his time until the end of the opera, and as they came out of the orchestra he thrust at Handel with his sword. Fortunately the stroke was parried by a thick wad of music tucked inside the young musician's jacket.

And there's more...Handel's mate, Mattheson, wanted to play Harpsichord in his own opera and, when GFH refused to give up the position, challenged him to a duel. By Mattheson's account his sword was deflected by a brass button on Handel's tunic, and shattered. After this, they became better friends than before.

After Hamburg GFH went to Italy to learn his trade and was very well received there - German operas had been looked upon as 'uncouth'. He was courted by royalty and various cardinals who no doubt tried to deliver him from his Lutheran beliefs, but without success. From there he returned to Germany and into the lucrative service of George, Elector of Hanover (1000 thalers p.a. - especially lucrative as he was hardly ever there.) GFH got leave twice to go to London and, the second time, he remained. Italian opera was all the rage over here and there was no competition musically. Handel outshone all his contemporaries in England, a fact that eventually split music lovers into two groups - you either loved him or you hated him. One of GFH's defenders in a highly amusing letter advertised in The Daily Journal' (1734) said this about the great British listening public.

"But betwixt you and I sir (but be sure you keep it secret) the majority of its inhabitants have their ears placed so near their backsides that they frequently sit on them..."

Musically, and certainly in terms of opera, Britain was a backwater until GFH arrived - production left a lot to be desired too. 'Rinaldo', his first British opera, written in two weeks, was a resounding success but a review in the 'Spectator' paints a vivid picture of incompetence. A cage full of sparrows was released in scene 1 (in a country grove) and instead of fluttering to land on the stage trees, they flew about the heads of the audience and put out the candles..not to mention the odd well - placed bomb. In another scene, a dragon was operated by a young lad..."I cannot in this place omit doing justice to the boy who had the direction of the two painted dragons and made them spit fire and smoke. He flashed out his raisin in such just proportions and in such due time that I could not forbear conceiving hopes of his being one day a most excellent player. I saw indeed but two things wanting to render his whole action complete, I mean the keeping his head a little lower and hiding his candle..." (The Spectator 1711)

Opera inflamed strong passions and there were often disturbances between rival factions taking the part of one singer or other - hissing or booing so that the singers could not make themselves heard, and eventually two opera houses were set up in opposition around the 1730s. It was at the juncture that Handel's career reached a very important turning point as he abandoned Opera in favour of the Oratorio...

Oratorios began in Rome (1556ish) when a priest, Philiop Neri, began popular services designed to attract and hold the attention of the local youth. He imported elements from well known sacred plays, bunging in a short sermon between acts - the whole being performed not in church but in an oratory (place for public debate). It was, in effect, an evangelistic musical. Up until GFH's time it had been rarely (if ever) heard in England and what's more he was writing them in English! Some respectable church goers objected to reducing Bible stories to the level of theatre, and to the use of 'Messiah' for the title of the well known Oratorio - however most people were gobsmacked by the whole concept including the author of this poem..

Each pulpit scorned, the good reforming age
More fond of moral's taught 'em by the stage
(Which though they may some prelates hearts perplex
Hit you I and all our modish sex.)
A vicious town and court, not half so soon
Made virtuous by sermon as a tune;
Whose melting notes the souls of sinners sooth
Who fly from Gibson (Bish. of London)
to be saved by Booth (An actor c.1733)

GFH was many things: a loner, an entrepreneur, an evangelist, totally unselfish in his work for many charities, devoutly Christian and a convinced Lutheran. He was both highly acclaimed and highly misunderstood in his own age - often, no doubt, hurt by the kind of gutter press aimed at him by his opponents; yet in the 17th century and to this day his musical genius is uncontested - still less the power of his music tied to Biblical narrative and summed up in the majesty of 'Messiah' and 'Handel's Notes'.

Handel's life
Handel was born in Halle, Saxony in 1685, son of a prosperous barber-cum-surgeon. His father had a career in law mapped out for his son but it was not to be. Handel's father died in 1697 and the young man tried to follow his father's wishes but lost his resolve after a year at law school. Resolved to pursue a career in music he went first to Hamburg where he was employed in the orchestra of Reinholdt Keiser's famous opera house. In 1706 GFH left Hamburg for Italy, spending four years there writing and performing to great acclaim. Seventeen-ten found Handel back in Germany in the service of the Elector of Hanover, on the understanding that he would be allowed leave to visit London. Whilst in England GFH wrote 'Rinaldo' (an opera) in just two weeks, and it was performed to great acclaim.

Halfway through 1 711, GFH returned to Hannover but only remained there for one year before returning to London where he wrote the opera 'Teseo' and music for Queen Anne's birthday. He stayed in England despite his obligation to Hannover and was rather embarrassed when, in 1714, the Elector was proclaimed King George I of England - his new patron. It was not long though before the long-suffering George and GFH were reconciled and George I conferred a pension of £200 a year on top of the one given to Handel by Queen Anne. "The Water Music" was written around this time for the King - played several times on a barge trip up the Thames and greatly liked. GFH's first commercial venture was an operatic society given Royal approval and called The Royal Academy of Music. Soon however, the Italian composer Giovanni Bononcini set up a rival opera house at the Haymarket which, along with decline in popularity of Italian Opera brought the Royal Academy to bankruptcy in June 1728. Unusually GFH was not shackled (as many of his contemporaries were) to a patron, and he now took his own affairs in hand and started to produce oratorios, the first ('Esther') proving extremely successful. In 1741 he took to Ireland a newly finished oratorio called 'Messiah' which was also a big success, and from this point he abandoned opera completely. When he died in 1759 he was a wealthy man and was mourned by the whole nation.

Recommended recordings
GREATEST HITS: Various artists RCA GD 89489
Jive Bunny has been pipped at the post here by RCA (minus the obligatory drum programmes). This is a great album for the uninitiated and initiated alike - I hope that there are more on the way to blow away a few classical cobwebs. Included here: "The Cocierto Grosso in B minor"; "The Cuckoo And The Nightingale"; and "Adora Papille" (from Julius Caesar) Very highly recommended.

I Musici
PHILIPS 422 370-2
Handel's instrumental genius is displayed here at it's best.

WATER MUSIC: Virtuosi of England EMI CD CFP 9002
This one'll have you humming in the bath, it's one of Handel's finer moments, and George the Ist's answer to the Walkman...cart an orchestra with you on a day trip up the Thames.

ODE FOR ST CELIA'S DAY: English Chamb Orch Choir of King's College Camb
St who? St Celia is said to have attracted an angel to earth by her singing (In those days when you were carted off by the men in white coats it probably meant beatification rather than a padded cell). In England St Celia's day was more of a musical than 'religious' occasion.. an excuse to party!

A FESTIVAL OF HANDEL: Academy of Ancient Music/ Christopher Hogwood L'Oiseau-Lyre 425 640-2
There's a few gems here, including "The Arrival Of The Queen Of Sheba" from 'Solomon', and the "Concierto No 2 in F Major." You can't go wrong with Christopher Hogwood as far as ancient music goes and A.A.Music is just right for listening in the car.

With so many recordings of "Messiah" around, here's a quick comparison..
Hyperion CDA 66251-2
The Sixteen/Christophers.
Chicago Symphony Orch.
Solti. Decca 414 396-2
Montverdi Chorus
English Baroque Soloists/
Gardiner Philips 411 041-2
London Philharmonic Orch
and Choir, John Aldis
Birdwing TC BWR 2011A
Oxford Christ Church
Cathedral Choir
Academy of Ancient music
L'oiseau-Lyre411 858-2
English Chamber Orchestra
and Chorus/Raymond
Leppard. Conifer TQ 110
Naaah!(But Cheap)
The Sixteen/Amsterdam
Baroque Orch
RCA GD 60029
Brill CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Dave Massey
Dave Massey is a broadcaster and journalist who lives in Walsall, West Midlands.


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