Handel: A life of Musical Devotion
A great gift to music entered into the world on 23 February 1685 in Halle, Germany. A life of great musical interest; one filled with an unbelievable talent that would become a beacon to many throughout the European continent and span centuries past its lifetime. It is a life that would become centered around a great mystery of how the musical talent would blossom into a recognized and celebrated gift; a life that would alter the musical landscape and the spiritual worship realm in a short 24 days, and a life that would become so influential that it would dictate musical compositions for many years afterwards.
A musical life that in the beginning would find itself struggling to exist; a life that will be forever known in George Frideric Handel. It is through Handel that we credit many great musical accomplishments; accomplishments in the mixture of homophonic and polyphonic textures, through the creation of his own unique works through the process of combining German, Italian, French, and English musical traditions into his highly successful English Oratorios. And most importantly through the lasting effects of Handel’s single greatest gift to the world, and the world of music: The Messiah. But how does the work of this single musician leave such a strong impression on the music that we have today? What could possibly make the music of Handel something that would be hailed as electric, memorable, unique, and even cutting edge? And most importantly how could one person alter the musical idiom through a single twenty-four day creation of a setting of Christ’s life? Through these questions I will explore Handel’s impact on music in a way that shed’s light onto the significance of Handel as a musician, a teacher, and inventor and as a religious preserver. It is with Handel that we credit a great deal of musical advancement.
Adversity in Handel’s life was something that he encountered early on in life. At an early age Handel found himself faced with a father that did not support a career in music, in fact his father was a person that greatly hated music; noting that it was a pastime that served the sole purpose of casting a light on the weakness of character found within a person. It was his father that wished he would strive to obtain a career as a lawyer, a position that would come with a great deal of security in position and financial stability. This was something that Handel himself would have to come to terms with, because he himself was born with “signs of a fierce ambition, born of an awareness of his superiority as a musician, and with a determination to maintain his independence.” This determination to advance his musical skill became a task that took a great deal of hard work and convincing; though it was Handel’s mother that provided access to a clavichord hidden in the family’s attic. The hours spent hiding from his father in the attic, covering the strings of the clavichord with cloth to dampen the sound, allowed young George the time to practice his musical development and eventually the knowledge of how to play both the clavichord and the organ. This early study is most likely what saved the musical career for Handel, because it was during the time stuck in the attic that a young Duke passing by heard young George playing in the attic and was so moved by what he heard, that he stopped to listen. After hearing young George play the organ, the Duke pleaded with George’s father to allow him to travel to Berlin and begin to take music lessons. The young Handel began taking lessons at the age of eight, and was easily able to conquer learning the violin, composition and theory techniques, harpsichord, and reinforce the organ playing skills. By the age of 11, there seemed little that any music teacher could teach George; it was at this point that George’s father began angry and again expressed his desire for George to cease playing in the music, and to return home and do as he wished. Handel at the request of his father did in fact return home, only to arrive at his father’s deathbed. This was a dark period of struggle for the young Handel, compelled to honor his father’s wishes, George decided that it was best to keep to his studies in law; though during this same time he continued to also sharpen the musical skills that he knew he possessed. It was during this time that Handel began to write cantatas for the various churches that he was serving in as an organist. It was the service in music that called out to Handel, and by the time he reached the age of eighteen, Handel had realized that it was in fact his destiny to become a great musician noting that he was destined to improve his musical abilities and his knowledge of music.
Leaving his birth city of Halle lead him on a series of travels that would shape the musical aspect of the outlook that Handel would eventually have on music. The various travels and cities that Handel was to visit would begin to influence every aspect of music that Handel would come to know and appreciate, and it was his first destination in Hamburg that would lead Handel on the path of musical greatness. It was during his time in Hamburg that Handel was really introduced to opera, and it took no time before Handel was given a position in the orchestra on second violin. The time at the Opera house playing violin was a period that would bring the birth of what people would come to see as a man that was described as a “large and very portly man”, one that was full of a short temper and one that had a general appearance about him that was “somewhat heavy and sour.” The personality of Handel would be something that many really would see as a double edged sword, in one aspect he was a intelligent man that had a good sense of humor, one that show a remarkable sense of integrity, reliability, and absolute honesty in all aspects of his life; but at the same time Handel was a person that possessed a short fuse, and hot temper. He was a man that was short tempered and vocal about is opinions of life in general, and especially music. This personality would be a defining part of Handel’s musical career, as it was shortly after he started working in Hamburg at the Opera house, that George was given the opportunity to display his tremendous talent at the harpsichord; though it was also this talent that caused young George (now approximately age 22) to vocally disagree with composer Johann Mattheson on a composition Mattheson had written. It was this short fuse of Handel’s that nearly ended his career, and life; though this spunk Handel exhibited also gave him the opportunity to catch the eye of a young prince, Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici, which would become impressed with the music Handel was performing. This lead to Handel being asked to leave his home, now Hamburg, and make the journey to Italy where he would again be placed in a situation of being surrounded by new composers and styles of music.
The move to Italy was an exciting time for Handel, as Handel was at a point of where his primary motivation for traveling to new areas was that of gaining experience, and in the case of the opportunity to visit Italy, the objective was to learn as much as he could from the composers of Italy, and their wonderful operas. It was in Italy that Handel made significant strides in his musical career and overall development. For when Handel made it to Italy he was exposed to the world’s greatest forms of music consisting of compositions of the likes of Opera, Cantatas, oratorios, chamber cantatas, concertos, and sonatas. This was a period that Handel began the task of refining his knowledge and really defining the compositional talents he had been using to this point.
Handel was afforded the luxury of being able to set no limit on the boundaries of which his music would take because of the generous gift of being surrounded by people that were able to support Handel and his daily needs. As a member of Prince Francesco Ruspoli court, Handel was given the freedom to explore compositional aspects and dig into the music that so highly intrigued him, though it wasn’t until 1710 that Handel’s musical world would come to full realization, and would establish Handel as one of the greatest musicians of all times. The year 1710 came with Handel’s move back to Germany where he would fall into the role once held by Steffani in Hanover as Kapellmeister to the Elector, George Louis, who eventually become King George I of England. Once in Hanover Handel was quickly convinced to travel to England with Prince George to scout out the music scene in the country as Prince George’s mother Sophia was married to the English Elector, meaning that Prince George would eventually assume the throne of England (which happened in 1714). During the early visits to London, the young Handel became highly intrigued in London’s newest opera house, the Queen’s Theater, and it was here that Handel decided that he would produce an opera that was Italian in nature and composed specifically for London. The opera Rinaldo was thus first produced in 1711, and consisted of slightly over a dozen performances, all of which were considered a huge success; thus paving the way for Handel’s move to England, and what was to become the foundation for the overall success of Handel.
The move to England was a positive move for Handel overall, leading to his ultimate desire to become a British citizen. Once he was finally settled into his life in England, Handel was offered and accepted the role of music director for the Royal Academy of Music when it opened in 1720. The academy was the center for operatic studies for many years after opening; credited greatly to the presence of Handel himself and his ability to attract the best singers to perform the works he had written himself. Though as with any worthy project dealing with the biggest and brightest stars, the academy began to see a decline in stature and operation; attributed to the high demands the singers were placing on the academy both performance wise and financially. This was only fueled by the internal conflicts among performers, patrons, and rival composers. This was a time when Handel’s short fuse and hot temper did not help, as Handel himself was part of many of the quarrels that took place, though he was clever enough to lighten the situation and make the tensions eventually come to an end through humor and quick wit. This did not help the academy in the long run as it eventually was forced to close its doors, but at the same time it only freed Handel to focus on his career, and eventually give him the time to prepare for the needed shift in musical direction as the opera itself had reached a point to where it was no longer a viable musical performance option in England.
The shift from opera was one that Handel himself was easily able to undertake, for the ambition and determination to succeed in the music realm allowed Handel to develop an internal motivator that he looked to for resolve to win fame and fortune and to “make money; honestly if you can, but-make money.” This was something that would serve Handel himself well because it is Handel’s personality and desire to serve the music and the people that gave him the title of “musician of the people.” This afforded Handel the ability to see a great deal of success with his music and career while in England going through the period of shifting from the Operatic style to that of composing English Oratorios. This also only aided Handel in popularity because may people saw Handel’s music as “property of the people, familiar, understood, and loved” and this was related to many English subjects as to the “work of not other great master the wide world over.”
The overall history of Handel is able to show that the experience and cultural exposure of his various travels, gave Handel himself a wide range and palette to work from. It is through the exposure to these cultures and musical styles, compositions, composers, patron, and musician employers that Handel was given the tools needed to succeed in the music world, but the experiences themselves did not create a unique character that was what was admired in Handel. It was the personal traits that Handel possessed that afforded him the opportunity to be loved by many and respected by all. The personality of Handel was a unique blend of every imaginable aspect one could possibly think of, he had a drive; a determination to succeed, the ability to make people laugh, a sense of quick wittedness, a familiarity aspect, devotion to religion, honesty, integrity, and an incredible love of music. But most importantly Handel never let anything stand in his way of doing what he loved: serving the people, the music, and his religion. An example comes in the form of the inability of anything to stand in the way of Handel’s success. In 1737 Handel suffered a stroke that for the most part threatened to end everything. The stroke had left Handel’s right arm paralyzed and thus prevented him from being able to perform and also had an affect on his mind. It was during this time that Handel fought to remain active, and did through the writing of Italian operas though the public no longer favored them. Handel pushed through all obstacles that he encountered including eventual blindness that took a toll on his compositions and eventually left Handel performing his music for organ from memory. It was ironic that Handel had a determination to succeed, because it was this determination that left him a person that was totally withdrawal from life and society, though loved by all. He did spend most of his time and life locked away from society and the daily life in order to focus on his music and thus never married nor had any children. He was a man that truly devoted his life to the people, his music, and changing the world of music.
The Influence Handel had on music was immense, the style and techniques that he was able to incorporate into the daily musical vocabulary was a blending of the major European styles that Handel had experienced in his travels from Halle to Hanover, to Hamburg, Italy and England. Simply put, Handel took the best of all the styles and created one Handelian style that would become a standard for the musical world, allowing him to “mature as a composer in England, the country then most hospitable to foreign composers.” Handel had a solid foundation from the early Lutheran church music that he was around growing up, this attention to the harmonic structure and counterpoint of the music he was able to adapt a rich lush style in the compositions that he wrote from the sacred cantatas through the opera, and eventually into the English Oratorios. One defining feature of the style that Handel possessed is that he was ever aware of the changing trends of the time, though his style of writing stayed pretty much the same and didn’t need much altering for he has such a gift for writing melodies that one would never realize that many times a harmony was not present under the melodic line. The melodies were bold and self-sustaining and thus needed no support from a harmonic progression to carry it through. A strong feature of Handel’s compositional style was the process of “borrowing” materials. It is clear and evident that Handel borrowed musical ideas from others during his life as a way to create a new melting pot of musical ideas. But Handel also employed the technique of borrowing musical material, or re-use of musical material, from his own work; however he did like to use material from other composers better. He did this in a way that varied, one method was simply to take entire pieces, or movements, from one work and reuse them in another, or to borrow material from a composer and then rework it to create an essentially new compositions, as seen in the Choruses from Messiah and Belshazzar’s feast; using the Italian duet “for unto us a child is born.” The use of the borrowing technique is one that is unique to Handel, because it was in the 1930’s that it seems as if the practice ceases, though this could be because Handel found the need to shift composition styles, and thus opened himself to a wide range of materials to now pull from, thus making the reference of music harder to pin point. But the fact remains that the “borrowing does not affect his status as a composer” because Handel himself never based his career on any single piece of work that utilized music that was credited to the creation of another person. Thus it is not known if any single composer influenced Handel himself, however it was obvious that Handel left an obvious influence on composer that appeared during his time and certainly after his death in 1759.
But it was in the 1930’s that Handel really would begin to impact and alter the trajectory of music and musical composition through the creation of the new genre of the English Oratorio. The English Oratorio was much like the Italian form of the genre as it set dialogue in lyrical and recitative verses, but then was combined with foreign elements from the French drama, Greek tragedy, German passion, and most importantly the English masque. These characteristics combined together was enough to solidify the fact that Handel was to be the greatest musical figure of all time, and one of the most respected people in all of London and England. One of the most important contributions the Oratorio made was to the vocal setting, and through the addition of the chorus. What made this such a huge success for Handel and for the popularity of his music was the sheer fact that Handel was able to create unique effects with the orchestration of the vocal score to create a simple form that alternated in the written passages of verses from an open fugal style to that of a solid harmonic sound. This added with the orchestra, who normally was scored in a way to support the vocal parts created a work that was not only easy to sing, but also made it accessible to the general public, making it established that “Handel is the musician of the people.” This form of music was never meant to be suited for the church, the Oratorios were meant for concert hall performance settings and thus even though the Messiah, one of Handel’s most well known piece was written as an Oratorio, it was actually seen more as a “sacred entertainment” piece.
But Handel’s contribution did not stop at the creation of the new style of music in the English Oratorio, but he actually found a great deal of success in writing instrumental works. The instrumental aspect of Handel’s musical output was one that garnished him with a great deal of extra income and was a major factor in keeping the name of Handel fresh in everyone’s mind and in their daily musical dealings. Though true to the nature of Handel, he was dedicated to being as successful as he could in all writing aspects that he undertook. Thus the two of his works in the instrumental category best know were written for the King, and were meant to be for the public pleasure during the various outdoor performances and social gatherings. The first, Water Music was written in 1717 and was comprised of three suites for winds and strings that was meant to be played from a boat on the river Thames for the king’s pleasure while he was entertaining socially those that he wished to stay in good graces with. The later of the works written in 1749 is the Music for the Royal Fireworks, a staggering piece written for an enormous wind section with strings later added in, meant to be played in an outdoor London park during a firework celebration. The work was written for many military instruments and was a work that excluded the use of stringed instruments, something that Handel initially had objections with. These two works directly play into the desire of Handel to continue to push the boundaries of what music was, and what it could do for the people, and how it could be enjoyed for all, in all aspects of life.
The most profound work that Handel ever wrote, one that would become the model work in the sacred realm of composition; one that would receive a great deal of homage by composers from all areas of Europe and for many decades, is the now infamous, Messiah. The Messiah is a remarkable piece simply from the process in which Handel took to write it. In a short twenty-four day span the work would come to existence from a mere thought. A large part of the ability for Handel to become so musically genius was the way in which he typically broke, or even stretched out traditional styles of composing music in order to make a dramatic impact on the work he was involved with. He was able to do this through the way in which he personally lived his life and through the enriched skills he had developed throughout his extensive travels. He had acquired the ability to take a raw talent and to polish it up into something of pure beauty and wonder. Since Handel himself typically chose various religious themes for many of his compositions, more and more of the British citizens began to approve using his music as a method of worshiping their god. It was fitting that Handel made his home in England, because it is the English that “have always been a Bible-reading… god-fearing nation, with strong religious instincts and a reverence for sacred things”. Messiah is Handel’s most well known work, and it is the best example of a work that can be used as a creative worship piece. The work is divided into three segments: The coming of the Messiah, The suffering and death of Christ, and the Resurrection. This work was composed and contained various features that gave way to a wide range of emotions: joy, sadness, fear, excitement, love, compassion, dramatic, and hopefully; but no matter what the need or feeling that way to be expressed Handel found a way to do it, and the Messiah was the catalyst to showcase those talents.
The Messiah composed in 1742 is seem by many as the best-written oratorio that has ever been written. The extensive piece contains some fifty sections of music and performance that takes nearly three hours to fully perform and celebrate. The most impressive aspect of the piece is the fact that it was composed in a mere twenty-four days; accomplished by Handel locking himself in his home refusing to be interrupted by anyone. During this time it was reported that Handel barely ate anything and slept very little. This was yet another nod to the dedication that Handel was known to have, and also played into the aspect that Handel had simply became part of his work, and thus always made sure that his full attention and thought were put into the music as it was composed. It might have been odd for Handel to write such a religiously profound piece considering that he himself was not a very religious person until the later part of his life; though there are accounts that lay claim to a “divine source” as the inspirational and motivational factor for the composition of the work. So profound was the work that Handel himself self stated that “I did see Heaven before me, and the great God himself” when he had finished the widely recognized Hallelujah chorus. The work has had a lasting effect on not only the composer’s reputation as one of the greatest advancers of the musical composition spectrum, but also on the works of composers who have been inspired by the works of Handel; Mozart being someone that had become extremely influenced by Handel and in particular the Messiah. But there also have been effects of this wonderful composition on the tradition of the work, and the performance aspect of how it moves people to feel something nearly spiritual every time it is heard. It is reported that during the first performance of this composition in London, that the current King of England, King George II, felt so moved and religiously compelled to stand during the singing of the Hallelujah chorus that others fell in step with the king (as was protocol of subjects to their king) and stood as well. This is a tradition that continues to this very day during the performances of Handel’s Messiah.
As you can see Handel had an enduring legacy on music and the compositional aspects of music. The dedication that Handel should to his life of music and the preservation of a lasting legacy has allowed Handel to really never leave us. His effects have been felt to this very day through the standing of the audience during the Messiah, to the compositional nods that composers give to Handel in their works. Handel is someone that proved to many that as long as there exists the desire to achieve, the object of their desire can be reached. Handel’s life there seemed to be filled with adversity from the beginning. From his father not wanting Handel to participate in a career filled with music, to his struggles with changing musical styles, the sometimes-awkward positions that Handel found himself in as it relates to arguments; Handel persevered through it all. It was not until the end of his life that Handel showed signs of a frail individual not able to continue on. Blindness was a severe blow to Handel’s career being that the production of, and revision of large-scale works was something that could no longer be done. Handel continued to do what he had done all of his life and find new ways to stay relevant and current with the musical needs, and did so through the use of trusted friends that did most of the dictation work for Handel, however eventual total blindness left Handel in such poor health that even that had to come to an end. It was finally on April 14, 1759 that Handel left his body form and thus was not the death of Handel, but was the birth of an enduring legacy of Handel on the musical styling’s of what was to come.
Lawrence V. McCrobie