George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel (hăn´dəl), 1685–1759, English composer, b. Halle, Germany. Handel was one of the greatest masters of baroque music, most widely celebrated for his majestic oratorio Messiah. Of German descent, he was originally named Georg Friedrich Handel.

Son of a barber-surgeon, he early displayed musical talent and was sent to Friedrich Zachow, an organist and composer at Halle, for three years of training. After studying law at the Univ. of Halle (1703), he joined the opera orchestra at Hamburg. There his first two operas, Almira and Nero, were produced in 1705. The following four years were spent in Italy, where his operas Rodrigo (1707?) and Agrippina (1709) were staged, the latter very successfully. In Italy he met Alessandro Scarlatti and other masters and absorbed the Italian style and forms.

In 1710 Handel became musical director to the elector of Hanover but obtained leave to visit England in 1711, when his Rinaldo was produced in London. He returned to England in 1712 and took up permanent residence there. His employer, the elector, became George I of England in 1714. It was for the king that Handel composed his celebrated orchestral Water Music (1717).

In 1719 an opera company, the Royal Academy of Music, was formed under the musical direction of Handel, Attilio Ariosti, and Giovanni Battista Bononcini, all of whom composed operas for it. The company was dissolved in 1728, but Handel continued trying to present Italian opera in London until 1741, when his last opera, Deidamia, failed. Handel's 46 operas include much of his finest music; among them are Julius Caesar (1724), Atalanta (1736), Berenice (1737), and Serse (1738), which contains the tenor aria now known as Largo.

Handel's Messiah was presented in Dublin in 1742. An essentially contemplative work, it stands apart from the rest of his 32 oratorios, which are dramatically conceived, and its immense popularity has resulted in the erroneous conception of Handel as primarily a church composer. Other outstanding oratorios are Acis and Galatea (1720), Esther (1732), Israel in Egypt (1736–37), Saul (1739), and Judas Maccabeus (1747).

He also composed about 100 Italian solo cantatas; numerous orchestral works, including the Twelve Grand Concertos, Op. 6 (1739); two books of harpsichord suites (1720, 1733); three sets of six organ concertos (1738, 1743, 1760, the last published posthumously); and the anthem "Zadok, the Priest" (1727) for the coronation of George II, which has been used for all subsequent coronations. While composer to the duke of Chandos (1715–19), he wrote the 11 Chandos Anthems.

Handel's sight became impaired in 1751, and by 1753 he was totally blind, but he continued to conduct performances of his works on occasion. He is buried in Westminster Abbey. Handel's musical style exemplifies the vigor and grandeur of the late German baroque and at the same time has English and Italian qualities of directness, clarity, and charm. He strongly influenced English composers for a century after his death, and, following a period of relative neglect, he has again come to be recognized as one of music's great figures.


See his letters and writings, ed. by E. H. Müller (1937); J. Mainwaring, Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frideric Handel (1760); biographies by H. Weinstock (2d ed. 1959), P. H. Lang (1966), P. H. Young (rev. ed. 1963, repr. 1975), and D. Burrows (1995); H. C. Robbins Landon, Handel and His World (1984); W. Dean, Handel and the Opera Seria (1970), Handel's Dramatic Oratorios and Masques (1959, repr. 1989) and, with J. M. Knapp, Handel's Operas, 1704–1726 (1987).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

George Frideric Handel: Selected full-text books and articles

Handel: A Symposium By Gerald Abraham Oxford University Press, 1954
Handel's Messiah, a Touchstone of Taste By Robert Manson Myers Macmillan, 1948
The Choral Tradition: An Historical and Analytical Survey from the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day By Percy M. Young W. W. Norton, 1962
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "The Period of Bach and Handel"
Symphonic Music, Its Evolution since the Renaissance By Homer Ulrich Columbia University Press, 1952
Librarian’s tip: Chap. II "Bach and Handel"
Eighteenth-Century Music in Theory and Practice: Essays in Honor of Alfred Mann By Mary Ann Parker Pendragon Press, 1994
Librarian’s tip: "Performing Problems in Handel's Operas" begins on p. 49
Festa Musicologica: Essays in Honor of George J. Buelow By Thomas J. Mathiesen; Benito V. Rivera Pendragon Press, 1995
Librarian’s tip: "Handel Studies" begins on p. 5
A History of the Oratorio By Howard E. Smither University of North Carolina Press, vol.1, 1977
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of George Frideric Handel begins on p. 342
A History of Western Music By Donald Jay Grout; Claude V. Palisca W. W. Norton, 2001 (6th edition)
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of George Frideric Handel begins on p. 405
The World of Great Composers By David Ewen Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of George Frideric Handel begins on p. 54
The Rise of Musical Classics in Eighteenth-Century England: A Study in Canon, Ritual, and Ideology By William Weber Clarendon Press, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "The 1784 Handel Commemoration as Political Ritual"
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