George Frideric Handel


Georg Friedrich Händel or Haendel (Halle an der Saale, February 23, 1685)

From an early age he showed remarkable musical talent, and despite the opposition of his father, who wanted him a lawyer, he managed to receive qualified training in the art of music. The first part of his career was spent in Hamburg, as violinist and conductor of the orchestra of the local opera house. He then headed to Italy, where he first became famous, premiering several works with great success and coming into contact with important musicians. He was then appointed chapel master to the Elector of Hanover, but did little work for him, and was mostly away in London. His patron later became king of Great Britain as George I, for whom he continued composing. He settled permanently in London, and there he developed the most important part of his career, as an operatic impresario and author of operas, oratorios, and instrumental music. When he acquired British citizenship, he adopted the name George Frideric Handel.

He received the foundations of his art from the Germanic baroque school, but later incorporated a wide repertoire of Italian, French, and English forms and styles, building a varied, original, and cosmopolitan personal style. He had great facility for composing, as evidenced by his vast production, which comprises more than 600 works, many of them of great proportions, among them dozens of operas and oratorios in various movements. His great vocal works were especially appreciated for their melodic richness, their psychological penetration, their dramatic impact, and the sumptuousness, originality and clarity of their harmony. He was an excellent counterpoint and polyphonist in the flexible molds of the Italian school, and introduced formal and aesthetic novelties in the idealistic and crystallized tradition of Baroque opera and its twin genre of oratorio, which foreshadowed the naturalistic reform of opera undertaken by Gluck. His cantatas and instrumental music are also characterized by experimentalism, inventiveness, and formal freedom.

His fame during his lifetime was enormous, both as a composer, considered a learned and original genius, and as an instrumentalist, one of the leading keyboard virtuosos of his generation and an exceptional improviser, and he was more than once called “divine” or the “new Orpheus” by his contemporaries. His music had a major innovative and transformative impact on the English vocal music of his time, making him a true celebrity for some time, although his career was full of ups and downs. He influenced other prominent European names such as Gluck, Haydn, and Beethoven, was of particular importance in shaping modern British musical culture, became known in many parts of the world, and since the middle of the 20th century his work has been recovered with growing interest. Today Händel is considered one of the greatest masters of European Baroque music.

Early Years

Händel was the son of Georg Händel and his second wife, Dorothea Taust. His family came from Breslau, and among his ancestors there were many blacksmiths and tinkers. His grandfather Valentine Händel moved to Halle and his first two sons followed the family profession, but the third, the musician”s father, became a barber-surgeon. His maternal grandfather was a Lutheran pastor, also a family tradition. Händel had six half-siblings from his father”s first marriage, a brother, who died soon after he was born, and two sisters. When Händel was born Halle was a provincial town without much cultural activity. His father had obtained a good job at the courts of the Duke of Weissenfels and the Marquis of Brandenburg, had earned a good standard of living, and had bought a large house that is now the cultural center and museum Casa de Händel, but he was constantly traveling between the two cities, and did not seem to view art in a good light. Considering it a waste of time, he planned a career as a lawyer for his son. However, Händel early on showed an aptitude for music, in which he was supported by his mother.

It is not known for sure how he started learning. Tradition has it that he practiced hidden from his father on a broken spinning reed in his house, which made no sound, but he may have learned something from his mother, who as a pastor”s daughter must have had some musical education, or at school he may have received some rudiments in the art. In any case, at the age of seven he already had a considerable command of the keyboard. By this time, accompanying his father on one of his visits to Weissenfels, he managed to gain access to the organ in the duke”s chapel, and to everyone”s surprise gave proof of his ability. The duke then insisted that the boy receive a regular musical education. Consenting, his father placed him under the guidance of Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, organist of the Church of Our Lady in Halle, learning theory and composition, organ, violin, harpsichord, and oboe, as well as studying the work of celebrated composers to acquire a sense of style. In the three years he studied with Zachow he copied a great deal of music from other masters, composed a motet a week, and occasionally substituted for his teacher on the church organ. At the end of this period his master said he had nothing more to teach him. His first biographer, John Mainwaring, said that he was then sent to Berlin, where he would have met distinguished musicians and won the admiration of all for his improvisational abilities on the organ and harpsichord, but later research has given the account as highly unlikely. It is possible that he attended German-language operas in Weissenfels, where the Duke had opened a theater.


His progress was halted in 1697 when his father died, leaving the family in precarious financial condition, and Händel had to find work to support them. The trip to Berlin that Mainwaring quotes as being in 1696 probably took place in 1698, and according to Lang it had a decisive impact on his future career, although it did not manifest itself immediately. The city was a musical metropolis thanks to the interest of the Electress Sophia Carlota, later Queen of Prussia, who gathered at her court a group of notable composers, visiting or resident, such as Agostino Steffani, Attilio Ariosti, Giovanni Bononcini, Arcangelo Corelli and others. Händel came into contact with them and admired their music. Playing at court, he made a strong impression on the Electoress, and was reportedly offered a scholarship in Italy, which was refused by his family. In 1701 Telemann visited Halle and got to know the young musician of whom he had heard good things, and a lifelong friendship began. In 1702 he obtained the position of organist in the Calvinist cathedral of Halle, as a probationary candidate and, trying to honor the memory and wishes of his late father, he began to study law, but abandoned the classes. In 1703, when he was about to be confirmed in the post of organist, he resigned and went to Hamburg, which at that time was one of the biggest opera houses in Germany.

According to the testimony of Johann Mattheson, whom he met in Hamburg, Händel on his arrival in the new city was already capable of writing long cantatas, poorly structured as to form and in an old-fashioned style, but all in all correct as regards harmony; as for fugue and counterpoint, he said that he knew more than Johann Kuhnau, a celebrated master of the previous generation. Mattheson was four years older than Händel, they immediately became friends, and Mattheson, considering him a sort of protégé, introduced him to the teeming musical life of Hamburg. In August of that year they both traveled to Lübeck to try for the post of church organist, succeeding Dietrich Buxtehude, but among the requirements for the post was that he marry Buxtehude”s daughter. She was much older than they were, and they both dropped out. Returning to Hamburg, possibly through Mattheson”s intervention, Händel joined the local opera orchestra, taking up the post of violinist. And soon his talent became apparent. On one occasion, in the absence of the conductor, he took his place, and was so successful that he was given the position. He remained the leader of the orchestra for three years, and in 1705 he composed his first opera, Almira, with Mattheson”s help. The opera was premiered with Mattheson singing the part of Antonio, and as this musician had a penchant for exhibitionism, as soon as his character died, he took over the conducting, displacing Händel. In one of the recitatives, Händel refused to hand over the post, an argument ensued, and the two ended up dueling. Fortunately, Mattheson”s sword broke when it hit a metal button on Händel”s clothing, and the duel was over. They later reconciled, and Mattheson sang the title role in another opera by Händel, hastily written for the same season, Nero, which proved to be an audience failure. Soon after, for uncertain cause, Händel was dismissed. Perhaps the failure of Nero contributed to this, but the theater was in a difficult economic and administrative situation, and probably the dismissal occurred without specific cause, in a context of general cost containment.

His friendship with Mattheson likewise came to an end, and little is known about his subsequent life in Hamburg. He seems to have lived giving music lessons, and in 1706 he received the commission for another opera, which was not premiered until two years later, split in two because of its excessive length, Florindo, and Dafne, which were eventually lost. But before its premiere he had already left for Italy. The reason for this trip may have been the difficulty of finding a good job after the confusion that had set in at the city opera house, but according to Mainwaring he would have been invited by the Italian prince John Gaston de Medici. It may have been the result of both factors. In any case he decided to go, but it is not known for sure when this happened. The next news about him is from January 1707, when he was already in Rome.


At the time of his arrival in Rome, the city was one of the greatest centers of art in Europe, had an illustrious and cosmopolitan nobility, and a cultural environment of much wider horizons than those he had known until then, and in comparison Hamburg seemed provincial. But the pope had forbidden the production of operas, which were considered immoral, and the musical life of the city revolved around instrumental music and especially oratorios, whose style was all operatic but dealt with sacred themes. The greatest patron of music was then Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, who gathered a group of personalities in his palace every week to discuss art and listen to music. In this circle of connoisseurs Händel met musicians such as Arcangelo Corelli, Bernardo Pasquini and Domenico Scarlatti. In late 1707 he went to Venice, where he gave concerts. In April of the following year he was in Rome again, as the guest of Prince Ruspoli, for whom he wrote the oratorio La Resurrezione, premiered on April 8 with a sumptuous montage. He then wrote the sacred cantata Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno for Cardinal Ottoboni, and may have attended as a visitor meetings at the Accademia dell”Arcadia, a very closed circle of celebrated scholars and artists, to which he was not admitted. But his fame was already established, and Cardinal Pamphilij wrote an ode in praise of the artist, comparing him to Orpheus, set to music by Händel himself.

He visited Naples, where in June 1708 he composed a pastoral cantata for the wedding of the Duke of Alvito, and proceeded again to Venice, where on December 26, 1709 he premiered his opera Agrippina, with enormous success; at every pause the audience erupted in applause, shouts of viva! and other expressions of appreciation. Despite highly promising prospects for an Italian career, in 1710 he moved to Hanover, where he took a position as chapel master at the court of Elector Georg Ludwig. But as soon as he arrived he asked for leave to travel, leaving for Düsseldorf, and then for London.


He arrived in London in the fall of 1710 and early the next year received a commission for an opera, Rinaldo, composed in a few days and premiered on February 24, 1711. It was enthusiastically received, making him an instant celebrity and inaugurating the fashion for Italian opera in England. His leave of absence expiring, he had to return to Hanover to resume his duties, but first he passed through Düsseldorf again. In November he went to Halle, where he was godfather to a niece. In 1712 he got permission for another trip to London, hoping to repeat his previous success, but the two operas he composed on his arrival were not significantly successful. Around 1713 he moved into Lord Burlington”s house, still a young man, but his mother had already made the family mansion an art center. Possibly it was she, in her capacity as chambermaid to Queen Anne, who got him commissions for the royal family, composing the Ode to Queen Anne and a Te Deum to celebrate the Peace of Utrecht. The practical result of the Ode was an annual pension of 200 pounds granted by the Queen. He also played the organ regularly in St. Paul”s Cathedral, always with great attendance.

However, by this time his leave had long since ended, and his employer in Hanover was contrite. Things became even more awkward for Händel when the Elector assumed the English throne in 1714 as George I. Händel tried by all means to avoid meeting him, but, according to Mainwaring, a friend of his, Baron Kielmansegge, divined a way to reconcile them. One of the favorite pastimes of the London nobles at this time was boating on the Thames, accompanied by a small orchestra that followed them in a boat of its own. On one of these trips the King was invited to participate, and Kielmansegge arranged for the music performed to be by Händel. Not knowing who the author was, the King was delighted, and when the plot was revealed, he forgave him. Other sources, however, say that the reconciliation came about through Francesco Geminiani, a celebrated violin virtuoso, who, when invited to perform before the King, demanded that his accompanist on the harpsichord be Händel. Be that as it may, George I not only confirmed Händel”s pension, but doubled it.

The years 1716 and 1717 were spent in Germany, accompanying the king on his visit to his German dominions, but he was given freedom to visit other places, going to Hamburg and Halle, visiting his mother and helping the widow of his former master Zachow, who was in poverty, by giving him a pension which was maintained for many years. In Ansbach he met an old friend, Johann Christoph Schmidt, already married with children and an established business, but he persuaded him to leave everything and go with him to London as his secretary and copyist. On this trip he composed several pieces to order, and his style showed a temporary reversion to youthful standards. On his return in 1717, the initial London enthusiasm for Italian opera had faded. Händel became the chapel master of the Duke of Chandos, one of the great patrons of music of his time, for whom he worked for three years, producing among other pieces the well-known Chandos Te Deum and the twelve Chandos Anthems, which betray his knowledge of Purcell”s music. At this stage he also wrote music for the Anglican liturgy, serenades, his first English oratorio, Esther, and gave lessons to the daughters of the Prince of Wales.

In 1719 part of the nobility got together and began to plan the resurrection of Italian opera in London, an idea possibly born in the Duke of Chandos” circle. With the King”s participation a company was formed with a capital of 50,000 pounds, which was named the Royal Academy of Music, inspired by the French academy. Händel was immediately enlisted as an official composer, and was sent to Germany to hire singers. Bach tried to meet him on this occasion, but there was a mismatch. The trip did not have the expected result, Händel returned to London with only one famous name, the soprano Margherita Durastanti, and the inaugural recitation of the Royal Academy in 1720, with a work by a minor composer, Giovanni Porta, was unimpressive. Following this, the staging of Händel”s Radamisto was somewhat better, but it was only performed ten times, and the next opera of the season, Domenico Scarlatti”s Narcissus, had a worse reception than the others. The following autumn Lord Burlington hired another composer for the Academy, Giovanni Bononcini, who came to be Händel”s greatest rival. His London debut with the opera Astarto was a great success, aided by an exceptional cast of virtuoso singers – Senesino, Boschi, Berenstadt, Berselli, Durastanti, Salvai and Galerati – who by their merit alone would have given consecration to whatever work they sang. Moreover Bononcini”s music possessed quality and was a novelty to the English, already accustomed to Händel, and a large party of supporters soon formed around him. In the following season, his were his most profitable works, performing three, while Händel offered only one, Floridante, whose success was moderate. However, the situation was reversed the following year, Floridante was re-performed with good reception, and two others, Muzio Scevola and Ottone, had excellent repercussions, partly due to the arrival of another important singer, Francesca Cuzzoni, who overshadowed all the other fashionable singers with her extraordinary vocal ability.

The relationship between him and the singers was not smooth; they were international virtuosos sought after by the highest courts, earning extremely high salaries, but they were also known for their extravagances, absurd demands, uncontrollable rebelliousness, and enormous vanity. Several times he had to pacify rivalries between them. Once he even threatened Cuzzoni with throwing her out the window if she didn”t obey him. Eventually Senesino and Cuzzoni made life impossible for the others, who left the company, and the two were only tolerated because they were in fact indispensable. In 1726 another singer was hired, Faustina Bordoni, who supplanted Cuzzoni herself, but the disputes not only continued but became more heated, becoming public and jeopardizing the recitals. At a performance on June 6, 1727 Cuzzoni and Bordoni began a full-blown body fight on stage, tearing each other”s hair out, amid the screams of the audience and general confusion, the Princess of Wales being present in the theater. Even among all these setbacks, a regular succession of great operas appeared in these years, such as Tamerlano, Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda, Scipio, Alessandro, Admeto, all well received. Händel was by then already considered the renovator of English opera, and judging by the reports of influential critics of the time such as Charles Burney, he demonstrated a musical science far above average, and was able to move his audience in a way never seen before, taking music beyond mere entertainment and imbuing it with passion.

In 1728, however, the Royal Academy was dissolved. Possibly the administrators were not competent enough, but a major factor was the constant change in tastes and fashions. When the pastiche The Beggar”s Opera was presented by a rival company, its success was blazing, being performed 62 times. It is also likely that Händel”s own music at this time, for the same qualities that Burney had praised, became one of the causes of the company”s collapse. In the face of the lightness and humor of Beggar”s Opera, with its easy-melody ballads in English that everyone could hum, its nonchalant character and immediate appeal, Händel”s highly elaborated, serious, Italian-language music could not compete with the taste of the general population, and it is supposed that part of his early success was due rather to the excitement and novelty of the virtuoso singers and castrati, hitherto unknown in London, whose performances were indeed electrifying, than to a true understanding of the substance and meaning of the music by the general public. The end of the company was no great blow to Händel. As a hired musician, he was always paid, he was able to accumulate a capital of 10,000 pounds, a considerable sum at the time, and the experience allowed him to hone his skill in dramatic composition, making him arguably the best composer of serious operas in all of Europe. Moreover, George I”s successor, George II, was even more sympathetic to him, appointing him composer for the Chapel Royal and composer at Court. His instrumental compositions were also appreciated, were published assiduously, and sold very well.

Even with the failure of the Royal Academy, he felt secure enough to launch an opera company of his own soon after. He partnered with the impresario Heidegger, took on a five-year lease on the King”s Theatre, and traveled to Italy in search of singers, but only managed to sign minor names. He also visited Halle to see his mother, and Bach again tried to see him, but again the meeting did not take place. His company”s debut, with Lothario, was inauspicious. The following season he was forced to rehire Senesino, and then the Poro recital was a success. He also managed to hire the bass Montagnana, another remarkable singer, but the performances of Ezio and Sosarme in 1732 were sparsely attended. In February he re-presented Esther in oratorio form, and at the end of the year he staged the opera Acis and Galatea, both in English and successful. The following year Orlando appeared, another success, and he was invited by Oxford University to present the oratorios Esther, Athaliah and Deborah. All were sold out, establishing a genre that quickly became popular.

But the economic situation of his opera company was not stable, and was made worse by the eternal friction with the singers. Händel remained the King”s favorite, but he was no longer a novelty, the new generation was already beginning to become influential, and his tastes were different. Being a foreigner, even though he was already naturalized, he created several enmities with the native composers. Moreover, the King being in serious friction with his son, the Prince of Wales, the latter sponsored the founding of a rival opera company, the Opera of the Nobility, and Händel as the monarch”s favorite was indirectly involved in the dispute. According to Lord Hervey”s account, the issue became so serious that being against Händel was tantamount to being against the King, but the monarch being unpopular, the aristocracy rallied around the Prince and his new company, which offered higher salaries to Senesino and Heidegger, and they abandoned Händel. He also lost the great protection of Princess Anne, who left England to marry the Prince of Orange. In 1734 his grant of the King”s Theatre ended and the house was given to the Opera House of the Nobility, which then had a large cast of singers, including the famous Farinelli. He immediately founded another company at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, in association with John Rich. He introduced innovations in the shows to attract more audiences, such as organ concertos and ballets between operas, with the participation of the famous dancer and choreographer Marie Sallé, but the initiative did not have the expected results, although in oratorios he remained unbeatable. In 1736 the marriage of Frederick, Prince of Wales, to Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha gave him the last opportunity to showcase his operas in style, for the princess requested a series of private recitals, where the composer presented old compositions and a new opera, Atalanta. Excited, he prepared for the following season by producing Arminio, Giustino, and Berenice.

But it was all in vain. By the 1735 season he had lost 9,000 pounds, and in 1737 he went bankrupt. His health weakened, he suffered a nervous breakdown, and a paralysis affected his right arm. He then went to the spa at Aix-la-Chapelle, where he recovered very quickly, and was able to compose a cantata there, which was lost. By the end of the year he was back in London, and immediately began the composition of another opera, Faramondo. He also made an attempt to conform to the tastes of the time by composing his only comic opera, Serse, which was a complete failure. The other had only slightly better luck. His only consolations in this difficult season, in which he was also threatened with imprisonment for debts, were a benefit concert his friends organized to raise funds for him, which unexpectedly was very well attended, and the statue they erected of him in Vauxhall Gardens, which according to Hawkins, his contemporary, was the closest portrait to his true appearance of any he knew.

He did not give up and made ambitious plans for his new oratorio, Saul, but its reception was poor. His following oratorios, Israel in Egypt and L”Allegro, Il Penseroso and Il Moderato, were other failures. His other works, Parnaso in Festa, Imeneo and Deidamia, all found empty audiences and barely lasted more than two or three nights. By 1739 he was again on the brink of ruin. Only his six Thick Concertos got a good reception, but could not turn around his financial situation, aggravated by a coalition of nobles who, for unknown reasons, took a stand against him at this point, boycotting his concerts. Rolland said that in the face of so many setbacks he decided to leave England, already without the strength to continue the fight, and in 1741 he announced that he would give his last concert.

However, in the same year he was invited to give a series of benefit concerts in Dublin, and there once again his star shone brightly. There he wrote Messiah, his best-known work, and performed L”Allegro, whose recitatives were a real triumph. He soon arranged for other works to be staged, all of which were enthusiastically received. In 1743 he was back in London, where his oratorio Samson was an immediate success, and his Dettingen Te Deum had a similar reception. But other compositions, such as Belshazzar and Hercules, failed, and despite the pensions he continued to receive on time, by 1745 his situation was once again critical. Again the nobility conspired to his downfall. Horace Walpole stated that it then became a fashion, in the days when Händel offered his oratorios, for the nobles all to go to the opera. During the Jacobite rebellion he took advantage of the political upheaval by writing patriotic works. His oratorio Judas Maccabaeus, composed in honor of the Duke of Cumberland, who had defeated the rebels, had enormous repercussion, giving him more income than all his operas put together. Suddenly he became the “national composer”. Subsequently, other compositions were well received. Susanna was a remarkable success, as was Fireworks Music, an orchestral suite. Finally his finances were stabilized.

In 1750 he traveled for the last time to Germany, also visiting the Netherlands, but his itinerary is obscure, only it is known for certain that he suffered a carriage accident and left badly injured. Early the next year he began writing Jephta, but then vision problems arose. He had an operation, but to little avail, losing the function of his left eye and having the other partially affected. His arm was again semi-paralyzed, but he was able to play the organ in Dublin in June. Because of these problems the writing of new works was greatly impaired, but with the help of his secretaries he was able to continue composing on a small scale and revising earlier works. He still played the organ in oratorio recitals, received and visited friends, and kept up correspondence. His oratorios were beginning to establish themselves in the repertoire and became popular; they were very profitable, so much so that at his death he left an estate of 20,000 pounds, a small fortune, including a significant collection of works of art. In 1756 he was practically blind and revised his will, but remained in good general health and in a jovial mood, he still played the organ and harpsichord with perfection, and also devoted himself to charity. The following year his health improved greatly, and he was able to resume composition, producing a number of new arias with the help of his secretary, and a new oratorio, The Triumph of Time and Truth, revising an old work. According to reports from friends, his memory was in exceptional condition, as was his intelligence and lucidity. The following year he was still able to direct plays in Dublin, kept control over various aspects of the production of his oratorios, and traveled to various cities to stage them, but by 1758 he had abandoned most of his public activities, as his health began to decline rapidly.

His last public appearance was on April 6, 1759, at a performance of The Messiah, but he collapsed during the concert and was taken home, where he remained in bed, passing away on the night of April 13-14. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, a great privilege, in a ceremony attended by thousands of people. His will was executed on June 1, leaving the bulk of his estate to his goddaughter Johanna, with endowments for other family members and their assistants, and a thousand pounds to a charity. His manuscripts remained with his secretary”s son Johnann Schmidt, of the same name as his father, who kept them until 1772, when he offered them to George III in exchange for an annual pension. Some, however, he kept, which were later acquired by Lord Fitzwilliam, and later donated to Cambridge University.

Private Life

Händel”s private life is not widely known, but several significant accounts have survived. According to these accounts, as a young man he was considered handsome and of good complexion, but as he grew older he became obese because he enjoyed the pleasures of the table, which gave rise to satires and caricatures that ironized this love. Burney said that despite this his countenance radiated dignity, and his smile seemed like a ray of sunshine piercing through the dark clouds: “… then suddenly there shone from his face a flash of intelligence, vivacity, and good humor such as I have seldom seen in any other person. He was clearly intelligent and well educated, versed in four languages – German, Italian, French and English. He used them all in combination when telling stories to his friends, and was said to be a great humorist. He was at ease among the powerful, despite his relatively humble origins, but maintained lasting friendships with ordinary people. He had a volatile, emotional, compulsive temperament, and could move quickly from anger to peace and benevolence. He was independent and proud of his musical abilities and honor, and defended them with vigor and tenacity; he was impatient with musical ignorance, made several enemies in his career, but was not vindictive, on the contrary, he was known for his generosity. When it came to defending his interests he was astute and knew how to use good diplomacy when necessary. He supported several charities and gave benefit concerts.

He liked arts other than music, had refined taste, and amassed a considerable collection of about 80 paintings and many prints, including works by famous masters such as Rembrandt, Canaletto, and Andrea del Sarto. About other areas, Burney and Hawkins said he was ignorant of everything. He grew up as a Lutheran, but after his naturalization he seems to have adopted the worship of the Church of England. His religiosity does not seem to have been extraordinarily strong, but it seems to have been sincere, and he was eclectic enough to write sacred music for Catholics, Calvinists, Lutherans, and Anglicans. He never married, and his sex life, if it existed, remained hidden from the public. It is possible that he had temporary romances with singers from his opera companies, as rumored during his lifetime. Some say that he was proposed to more than once, and it has also been suggested that he may have had a homosexual inclination, but nothing has been documented. Burney said that he worked so hard that he had little time left for social entertainments. Despite the plethora of reports about him – and anecdotes – Lang was of the opinion that his innermost nature remains obscure, a man “difficult to know and difficult to portray…and who makes us believe that the inner man differs markedly from the outer…his works remain the main key to explaining his heart.”

He enjoyed good general health throughout his life, but a few ailments brought him trouble – occasional attacks of paralysis in his right arm, an episode of mental imbalance, and his final blindness. They have been modernly analyzed, with the following conclusions: the attacks of paralysis, the first of them in 1737, were possibly due to some form of muscular stress or arthritis of cervical origin, or some peripheral neuropathy due to repetitive use of the hand and arm, as is common among musicians. They may also have been the result of lead poisoning, which was present in significant quantities in the wine he drank. In the first episode of paralysis there was also a mental disorder of some severity, of which no detailed accounts survive, and which due to the lack of other symptoms and its brevity may have been either an extreme emotional reaction at the prospect of losing forever the use of the limb, essential to his profession, or the result of stress due to his bankruptcy as an entrepreneur. But both problems disappeared quickly and left no known sequelae. Other attacks of paralysis occurred over the years, all of which reversed quickly and without later impairing his abilities as a performer. He often complained of ill health to his friends, but all their accounts of these encounters contradict his words, describing him always as visibly well, perfectly lucid, witty and active. His most serious illness was blindness, noticed from 1751, temporarily interrupting the writing of the oratorio Jephta. He sought medical help and had what was described as a cataract operated on three times, without success. He eventually lost the sight of his left eye completely, and in subsequent years, of his right, though apparently not at all, at least at first. It has been suggested that this blindness was the result of an ischemic optic neuropathy. William Frosch also rejected other opinions present in early 20th century biographies in particular, which showed him to be a manic-depressive.


When Händel arrived in England to develop the most significant part of his career, he found the musical life of the country in decline. After the deaths of Purcell and John Blow, no composers of stature had emerged, which had made room for a virtual invasion of foreigners, especially Italians, but the local structure was not ready to assimilate them. Whereas in the rest of Europe there were numerous important musical centers, and even provincial courts maintained orchestras and theaters, in England the only center of activity was London, and even there there was no system of patronage by the nobility. So the only music of any quality was heard in small domestic soirees given by dilettante nobles in their mansions or private clubs, in a few public concerts, and a little sacred music in worship. The situation was worsened by the complete absence of music education institutions, in contrast to the well-structured academies in other countries. This situation timidly began to reverse soon after his arrival, and he played a central role in this process. The nobility was also instrumental in allowing opera in Italian to flourish, in view of its very high production costs, and in fact it only happened because its most important audience was the elite themselves, who found the genre an exciting novelty. Even with this support, the Italian opera tradition in England was more of a passing fad, it failed to take deep root, and if it did for a while, it was more thanks to Händel”s obstinacy. All the operatic companies that were formed saw many successes, but they also suffered considerable setbacks, and none lasted very long. The causes for this were both their economic unviability and resistance from part of the public, who partly saw the theatrical environment as a den of vice and the music as potentially dangerous because it uncontrolled the emotions, and partly preferred the English ballad-opera more. Critics in the press, too, were resistant, tending to see everything as an artificial and somewhat absurd foreignness, and were more interested in the resurrection of the rich native musical past, as evidenced by the establishment of the Academy of Ancient Music in 1710, the appearance of several extensive compilations of music from the generations between Dunstable to Purcell, and the publication of important works of music history and musicology.

Despite Händel”s great individual participation in the dynamization of English musical life, there was in his time a clear movement throughout Europe for the creation of a new audience for music and the other arts, formed especially by the rising bourgeoisie. Places such as cafés, cultural societies, and libraries often offered musical attractions, and the press contributed to the education of this public by developing active critical articulation, whether on a professional or amateur level. Those mentioned spaces, then, served as flourishing forums for cultural debates for the bourgeois society that was being illustrated, where not only it participated, but, especially in the case of England, it was common for artists, journalists, and noblemen interested in art to gather in addition, in an atmosphere of broad social equality that, however, soon out of doors, disappeared. There was so much freedom inside that the English police did not take long to put such houses under suspicion of being hotbeds of political subversion. But the pressure to the contrary was great, official control was soon relieved, and their activity prospered, becoming important centers for the cultivation of both English art criticism and a sense of identity in politics and culture for the local middle class.


Speaking of his general style, Romain Rolland said:

As for the operatic work, Händel broadly followed the principles of Italian dramatic music, which was the dominant current of his time, all composed in the great tradition of serious opera. He did not react against the conventions of the genre, but was able to introduce great variety to it, and was noted for the depth of the psychological characterization of his characters, managing to make convincing human beings out of the mythical heroes of his stories. He also incorporated elements of English (especially Purcell”s), French (the dramatic tradition of Lully and Rameau) and German (Krieger, Reincken, Buxtehude, Pachelbel, Muffat and others, who provided the basis of his early training) styles, which he knew in depth, and was, according to Nikolaus Harnoncourt, one of the few composers of his time who could be described as truly cosmopolitan. His vocal works were never composed to satisfy popular taste, except for a few unsuccessful attempts in his later years, and his private correspondence attests to how much he despised this taste, but his notebooks reveal that he drew much inspiration from the songs he heard in the streets. He composed for the moment, for money, to destroy his competitors, without pretending immortality, but, according to Edward Dent, he never abandoned the seriousness with which he saw his own work, and he did so aiming at an educated social class that would be able to desire, besides entertainment, also grace, dignity and serenity. Nevertheless, he contributed in an important way to disseminate high-level music among the people through his public concerts. His sacred works revolutionized English practice, not only by the employment of large orchestral and vocal masses and by the efficient use of the stile concertato, contrasting small groups and solos against the orchestra and choir block, but also by their grandiose effects and powerful drama, and by the introduction of a more modern melodic sense and clearer harmony. His oratorios, much more than substitutes for operas for the Lenten periods when the profane theaters were closing, founded in the country a whole new tradition of choral singing, which soon became an important feature of the English music scene and which inspired Haydn and impressed Berlioz. In addition to his vocal output, he left behind a great deal of top-level instrumental music, including concertos, sonatas, and suites.

Händel was celebrated as one of the great organists and harpsichordists of his generation, he was called “divine” and “miraculous,” and compared to Orpheus. Once, in Rome, he played the harpsichord standing up, in an awkward position, and with a hat under his arm, but so excellently that everyone jokingly said that his art was due to some pact with the devil, since he was a Protestant. Sitting down afterwards, he played even better. He amazed his listeners with his ability to improvise. A contemporary record mentions that “he accompanied singers in the most wonderful way, adapting himself to their temperament and virtuosity, without having any written notes before him.” Mattheson stated that in this field he was incomparable. He had a few pupils in Germany, but after that he never taught again, except for the daughters of George II of Great Britain, and the son of his secretary, John Christopher Smith. An account of the time tells that he did not enjoy this activity. The surviving manuscript documentation, including an exercise book composed for the use of these few pupils, indicates that his methods as a teacher did not differ from the general practice of his time, but showed a special influence from the Germanic school, where he himself had received his training.

Working Method and Composition Technique

Testimonies of the time claim that Händel had an impressive facility for composing, sometimes composing faster than his librettists could provide him with the text for his operas and oratorios. He composed the overture to Rinaldo in a single evening, and writing Belshazzar so quickly that his librettist could not keep up, he entertained himself in his spare time by composing Hercules, another great work. His famous The Messiah, a long oratorio in three acts, was composed in only 24 days. He was not systematic, composing works in independent parts while working on several at the same time. When he was composing, he isolated himself from the world, and no one was allowed to interrupt him. While he was doing this, he would shout at himself, and get emotional when working on a tragic or pious text. His servants often saw him crying and sobbing over the music sheets. When he was writing the chorus Halleluja from Messiah, his valet went to serve him hot chocolate and found him in tears, to whom the musician said, “I don”t know if I was in my body or out of it when I wrote that, only God knows!”

His general technique for composing the vocal works that make up the most important part of his legacy is peculiar. He did not make sketches except very brief notes of the main melodic idea of the piece, writing directly to the conclusion, and although this was not a rule, it was a common practice of his to first compose a skeleton of the piece, with the continuous bass, the violins and the voice in full, and only after finishing this framework he filled in the middle parts and wrote the music for the recitatives. He often left only succinct indications, with plenty of room for improvisation by the performer, and for this reason the middle voices often have the function of simply providing a harmonic filling rather than calling attention to themselves. He used the “cut-and-choir” technique a lot, and it was not rare that he would change his mind during the composition and this would result in a complete alteration of the structure, as proven by several pieces in very different versions, and he would reuse material from old compositions. Such liberties make it difficult to establish a fixed pattern of composition. As Hurley described,

His main concern seems to be the melody and the overall effect, and not the detail. And as for melody, he was one of the greatest melodists of all times, creating complex lines, with asymmetrical structure and broad gestures, but forming a remarkably unified and expressive whole. His fertile ingenuity was capable of creating melodies to express the full emotional spectrum of the human being in the most varied situations. Conductor Christophe Rousset, asked which features of Händel”s work he considered the most important, said:

Although he was an excellent counterpoint player, counterpoint had a relatively secondary part in his style, and he worked the polyphonic techniques with great freedom and originality. Many times his polyphony was compared with Bach”s, always unfavorably, but with this one loses sight of the fact that despite his origins and training. His model was not the Germanic approach to polyphony, but the Italian, that of Legrenzi, Vitali, Bassani, and above all Corelli, whose style is light and not very formal, fluent, free, flexible, and vocal in origin and spirit even when adapted for instrumental language. Hence his conception of polyphony was in every way different from that of his famous countryman, and his objectives were equally different, always making it serve dramatic purposes. It is significant that in his treatment of the fugues, the most rigorous and also the most prestigious counterpoint form, which played as important a role for the baroque as the sonata did for the neoclassic, they show a very free treatment, and in general make use of wide homophonic sections and seem at first sight only sketches. He also allowed the inversion of sections, sometimes placing the stretto right after the first exposition, blurring the boundaries between episodes, or using fugue sections in the manner of rondò. When he applied polyphony to the chorus, he often constructed a polyphonic section first which flows into a homophonic section as the dramatic crowning of the piece, achieving striking effects. To the critics of such a free and personal approach, he proved that this was not due to a possible incompetence in the handling of the form, but to a conscious choice, through several didactic examples of great beauty that follow the rules to the letter.

His harmony is always solid, clear, attractive, imaginative and often daring, with unusual and adventurous modulations and unforeseen resolutions, and he made use of unusual tonalities in his time, such as B flat minor, E flat minor and A flat minor. He was able to produce both subtle atmospheric effects and chordal chains of powerful dramatic movement. He apparently defined the harmonic contours of a piece beforehand, but left detailed harmonic nuances and movements to be decided in the course of the compositional process, giving his creativity, Hurley thinks, an intuitive character. In his recitatives he was sometimes a prophet of modern music, with surprising chromaticisms. He had a great ability for thematic development, which could assume symphonic proportions in the accompaniments of arias and choruses, creating a continuous movement effect of great propulsive force. He had a fine sense of rhythm and metric refinement. His phrases, according to Lang, can be compared to white verse, whose rhythm is energized by enjambements and the use of combinations and alternations of different meters. This is clear in his manuscripts, which use time signature with great freedom, which is often “corrected” in printed editions depriving the reader of the perception of the subtle nuances of phrasing.

In his treatment of the arias he diverged from the practice of his time. The aria had evolved into a form called da capo (from the beginning), a tripartite, symmetrical structure: ABA – a first section presenting the main theme and its development through variations and ornamentation; this was followed by a contrasting part, in another key, usually the opposite relative of the opening key, which had the function of introducing the dialectical element of the discourse, a counterargument, and then a recapitulation of the initial material in the ritornello, which confirmed the basic idea of the piece, which in his time was a literal repetition of the first passage. Händel often avoided a literal repetition by introducing modifications that filtered elements of the middle section, or made abbreviations throughout the section, resulting in an asymmetrical, ABa structure.

Händel became famous among other things for his ability to graphically and musically illustrate the meaning of the text, in the technique known as “word painting,” which was one of the most important categories of Baroque musical thought and fell under the “doctrine of the affections,” a complex system of symbolizing emotions through plastic and auditory resources that was used in purely instrumental music and became even more crucial for dramatic vocal music. The following is a fragment of an aria from Messiah as an example. The text reads:

Händel illustrates the exaltation of the valleys by performing an ascending leap of a sixth and then celebrating the exaltation with a long, florid melismatic sequence.

When illustrating the lowering of mountains, he first “scales” the mountain with four notes that beat a whole octave and immediately brings the melody down to its origin; next he describes the word hill, “hill,” with an ornament whose design is a gentle arc, and then brings the melody down to its origin note, the lowest in the phrase. It describes crooked, “crooked”, first with four notes in an undulating figure, and then with a series of jumps, and straight, “straight”, with a single note of long duration. He draws rough, “rough”, with a series of notes of equal pitch in a conventional “square” rhythm, and illustrates the flattening process, in the expression made plain, with an ascending leap of fourths which in the first time is sustained for nearly three bars, with a soft flourish, and in the second slowly goes through long notes, which gradually descend to the tonic.

He was an excellent and sensitive orchestrator, making a very selective and conscious use of the instruments at his disposal. Although modern interpretations make use of modern instruments, often with excellent results if well conducted, the characteristics of timbre, power and sound support of the baroque instruments are unique, were explored systematically by the composer to obtain specific results of color, atmosphere and musical symbolism, and can not be reproduced by the classical-romantic orchestra that is still the basis of the standard concert orchestra. He also took unusual care in his generation to make his performance intentions clear in the score writing, making many notes of tempo and dynamic changes. His operas employed only forty to sixty people, including the chorus, soloists, and instrumentalists. For oratorios he might need slightly larger forces, but not much. On solemn occasions exceptionally large ensembles could be used, with double choirs and orchestras. Its standard choir, with about twenty members, was all male, consisting of basses, tenors, falsettos as contraltos, and boys for the soprano part. Women only appeared as soloists in dramatic roles, which was the custom of the time.

His practice of borrowing material from others for his compositions has been debated at length. Many have seen it as plagiarism, an ethical flaw, or a symptom of lack of inspiration, but the fact is that in his time there was no concept of copyright as we know it today, and, moreover, this use was commonplace and a phenomenon that was not restricted to music alone, but was found in all the arts. The act of borrowing a piece or fragment to rework its material was, in fact, long-standing. George Buelow has pointed out that the practices of parody, paraphrase, pastiche, variation, and other forms of appropriating other people”s material followed a tradition going back to classical antiquity, which was closely linked to rhetoric – the art of telling well, of being persuasive – one of the skills that the perfect citizen should master, essential for productive participation in community life. Rhetoric was even clothed with a mystical aura, being linked to myths about the origin of man”s intellectual gifts, his “divine spark. In practice, “plagiarism” was good for everyone: it gave more popularity to the original composer, indicating recognition of his merit; it was a form of dialogue with an experienced audience, able to perceive the subtleties and references of the discourse, and could serve friendly competitions: the “plagiarists” demonstrated their own merit if they were able to present a creative and erudite variation, as a testament to their musical culture and talent.

This citational debate among creators, theoreticians, and the public, elaborating the tensions between tradition and innovation, between originality and imitation, enlivened the diffusion of aesthetic ideologies and fashions, and in Händel”s time already energized a significant editorial and critical market and art consumption. Even if in Händel”s time these various forms of plagiarism were beginning to be questioned, they had not yet been coated with a negative connotation. His teacher Zachow had encouraged him to copy works by other masters in order to consolidate his style, and this was a universal pedagogical method. Mattheson pointed out his practice of borrowing material from others already in his youth, but did not criticize it, but rather pointed out the existence of an affiliation to common artistic principles, and also understood it as a form of praise from the copier to the copied. What puzzled Händel”s contemporary critics was not so much the fact that he drew on material from others, but the large number of times he did so. Critics of later generations were even more concerned, as they thought Händel was a sneaky plagiarist, but Händel”s borrowings were known to everyone in his time and he himself made no effort to hide them. The critic and composer Johann Adolph Scheibe wrote in 1773:

Two of his early biographers, Charles Burney and Sir John Hawkins, who were the greatest English music critics of their generation, were not the least bit concerned about this either. Only in the 19th century did moral itches begin to become visible, and then clearly disapproving voices appeared. The first article to criticize Händel”s plagiarism negatively appeared in 1822, a work by the Irishman F. W. Horncastle, which set the tone for almost all 19th-century criticism of this aspect of the composer”s work. In it, the Romantic view of creativity as a manifestation of pure originality was already clear, and in this new context plagiarism acquired an immoral connotation. Horncastle said:

The most important part of Händel”s output are his vocal works – operas and oratorios, as well as hymns, odes and cantatas – and all these genres, which were born autonomous a century before he worked, by his time had merged in such a way that they became in practice almost indistinguishable, save for the subject matter they addressed and the sonic forces they required, for in terms of style and general treatment they were in essence identical. The most obvious differentiation between them is that the operas were staged as plays, with a dramatic plot, costumes, and all the scenic paraphernalia, and the others were concert plays, without staging, or with scenographic accessories reduced to a minimum. Even so, there was so little room for real dramatic action in the operas of that time that they may well be considered concert plays with luxuriant visual decoration. In fact, Baroque serious opera, despite being the most prestigious form of theater of the time, considered the true sum of all the arts, appealed more to the spectacle of its staging than to the strength of its textual content, which did not prevent some from having librettos of high poetic quality and dramatic efficiency.

All these genres are structured very simply: an instrumental overture followed by a series of arias accompanied by the orchestra, alternating with recitatives, and with sporadic appearances by duets, trios, and choirs. The arias were essentially static and self-sufficient sections, serving above all to show off the virtuosity of the singer and making a highly rhetorical, stylized and formal meditation on some element of the narrative – they sang a feeling, reflected on some previous event, planned the future, and so on, but there was no action at all. The plot was carried on only in recitatives, parts sung in a form close to speech, with accompaniment resumed to the continual bass or a few instruments. The recitatives were the parts that the audience found least interesting, seeing them as necessary only to provide some unity in the loose and vague dramatic cohesion of most librettos, and during their performance it was common for spectators to engage in conversation with their neighbors, to drink and eat, to circulate around the theater, while waiting for the next aria. This phenomenon was widespread in the Baroque operatic world, and in the London case this was even more pronounced, since Händel”s operas were all in Italian and there was already a solid tradition of vernacular spoken theater there that supplied the demand for literary performances.

The difficulty of achieving dramatic efficiency with Italian baroque opera stemmed from several factors. Firstly, few singers had any real theatrical talent, and more often than not their stage presence was only justified by their vocal skills. Second, a large number of librettos were of poor quality, both in terms of idea and form, their texts having been reformulated and adapted infinite times from various sources, resulting in veritable literary mosaics. Third, the very structure of the opera, fragmented into a long sequence of more or less autonomous passages, between which singers left and returned to the scene several times to receive applause, nullified any sense of unity of action that even an excellent libretto could offer. Moreover, the patrons of such shows, invariably of the noble class, expected operatic characters to illustrate the virtues and code of ethics that were imagined to belong to the nobility-at least ideally. Thus, the characters in the drama were unrealistic, being mostly personifications of assorted abstract principles, fixed types with scant human life, who developed their performance by singing highly rhetorical texts. Even vocal timbres were associated with certain roles: the main heroic characters were assigned to castrati, emasculated men who developed high-pitched voices and often also feminine body features. As strange as this may seem today, in those days their voice was associated with the ideal of eternal youth and virile virtue. It was also necessary that there always be a happy ending. Notwithstanding all its character of abstract stylization, Italian opera was immensely successful in almost all of Europe. As Drummond said, “it was a time when the emphasis was on appearances rather than on substance, when display and ostentation were qualities to be admired. It is this delight in disguise, ostentation, and ornament that is so clear in certain aspects of Baroque art; it is no coincidence that theater played an important role in the courtly entertainment of that period.”

Since the reality of life often contradicted the operatic ideal, it is not surprising that, under the influence of Enlightenment rationalism, even in Händel”s time some critics, especially English pragmatists, deplored in toto the concept of opera as formulated in Italy on account of its artificialism, a criticism that by the end of the eighteenth century was already spreading throughout Europe and led Gluck to initiate a reform of the genre in the direction of naturalism. In part it is these artificial conventions, a commonplace in the 18th century, that are one of the obstacles to wider acceptance of Händelian opera today.

Even working with these formal limitations, Händel”s operas are very effective dramatically, especially in the sense of being able to move the audience and excite their various emotions, and one of the reasons for this is his perfect understanding of the relationships between singer, librettist, and composer in achieving the desired effect. He took into account both aesthetic and practical aspects – the target audience, the talent of the singers, and the funding available for the staging. For La Rue, the virtuosity of the singer, the breadth of his vocal range, his capabilities as an actor, and his status within the company had great weight in the writing of the part assigned to him. When for whatever reason a singer was replaced, Händel often rewrote all the numbers in which he appeared, or used older material whose musical characteristics were better suited to his voice, going so far as to modify the libretto itself. In any case, these limitations were only the starting point for the aesthetics of his music, and not the final goal, which was to obtain an efficient stage effect, characterization and action, and Händel was often lucky to have the best singers of his time and great librettists. He also collaborated actively in drafting the librettos and planning the sets and costumes. But in several cases he made adaptations that compromised the cohesion of the ensemble, which attests to the fact that the idea of creating a character for and by a specific singer had a literal meaning. On those occasions when he needed to rewrite his works, more than once he changed them in such a careless and disrespectful way that Lang imagined that the product was more from the Händel entrepreneur, interested only in meeting the demand of the moment or in solving an unforeseen problem as practically and quickly as possible, whatever the cost, than from the Händel composer, whose sense of form was extremely refined.

The oratorio was a genre that Händel consolidated in England from the tradition of anthems (hymns), sacred texts set to music with solos and choirs used in Anglican worship, which he had worked on early in his English career with excellent results, as can be seen in the Chandos Anthems and several others. Their structure and scale were quite similar to the oratorios he developed later, introducing a drama and poignancy that the anthems were unfamiliar with and giving them independence from the liturgy. But Händel”s motivations for devoting himself to the genre are not clear. It is possible that it was an attempt to circumvent the ban on operatic music during Lent, but performances of sacred dramas were also part of a tradition of moral and religious education established by Racine among wealthy and pious families in France. The oratorios are significantly more cohesive dramatically than the operas, in part through collaboration with Charles Jennens, a great librettist, the greater participation of the chorus-in some, such as Israel in Egypt, the chorus predominates-and the dissolution of the rigid boundaries between aria and recitative, with richer orchestration for the latter, which tend to be brief, and the employment of ariosos, an intermediate form between the two. He was also able to explore the representation of emotions with much greater freedom than in his operas, in a more accessible way for the audience, being sung in English, and even in matters of pure form his oratorios are freer and present more unpredictable solutions. Lang has suggested that with his oratorios Händel did much for the renewal of opera itself in the direction proposed by Gluck, and Schering has gone so far as to say that if one compares Händel”s Theodora (1750) with Gluck”s Orpheus and Eurydice (1762), one will not hesitate to attribute to Händel”s work everything-and perhaps more-than has been attributed to the younger master. It is well known that Gluck had an enormous admiration for his older colleague, and that he had his work as a central reference.

Besides their eminently musical and expressive qualities, his oratorios have extra-musical connotations. Many, through symbolic allusions that were then in the public domain, reflect social events of their time, such as wars, the progress of culture, the actions of the royal family, political turns and moral issues, as for example Deborah”s and Judas Maccabaeus” connection respectively to the Duke of Malborough”s successes and the Jacobite revolt; that of Jephta to the patriotism and political position of the Prince of Wales; Hercules, embedded in the philosophical discussion that was going on about pleasure, truth and virtue, and David, as a lamentation about the King”s friction with the Prince of Wales. They also meditate on the idea of religion of his time, since they are mostly of a sacred theme, considering that religion had a great influence on everyone”s life and the pulpit in his time was one of the privileged places for political, social, and cultural debate. Such reverberations of meaning, which were surely essential to their growing success among the public of the time, giving them a unique relevance to that daily life, have only recently been explored by critics. Similar in structure to the oratorios are his odes, antiphons, motets, and psalms, but these are mostly juvenile works, composed during his stay in Italy and intended for religious worship.

His cantatas for solo voice and continuous bass are the least studied and least known part of his vocal production, but they deserve a brief analysis not only because they contain countless beauties, but also because they were the ground where he started his dramatic career. He began to practice this genre in Italy, where it was popular among the elite, and in a very short time he mastered the form. The texts usually deal with pastoral episodes from Greco-Roman mythology, treated in a mode ranging from the lyrical to the epic, but he also worked with sacred themes. His writing is full of counterpoint subtleties, unusual harmonic effects, a virtuosic development of the vocal line and of the cello part, and the rich rhetorical and symbolic complexity of his texts could only be understood by the circles of connoisseurs who appreciated them. Far from fixating on conventions, he used the genre as a field of experimentation, and each composition has a very individual and original character. In many of them he introduced additional instruments, forming a small chamber orchestra, and in these cases he expanded his approach to approach true operaticism. He used much of this material later in his operas.

Instrumental Music

Händel paid little attention to purely instrumental music, and most of what he produced, though generally of great quality, was conceived primarily as interlude pieces for his vocal works, even in the case of his major concertos. Notable exceptions are the two festive suites Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks, and even these were composed as occasion works, in everything peripheral to his central interest. Nevertheless, they are masterful pieces in their genre, and remain among the best known by the general public. They are highly melodic, exhibit an enormous richness and variety of instrumental effects, and are organized with a strong sense of form. His thirteen organ concertos are also of interest, as they constituted an innovative contribution to the collection of musical forms. They were composed between 1735 and 1751 to be performed between the acts of his oratorios, and originated in improvisations that he, as a keyboard virtuoso, was required to make on these occasions. Several of them take material from his sonatas. Some were printed in his lifetime, both in their original form and in versions for keyboard – solo organ or harpsichord – and the latter became favorite pieces between the late 18th and 19th century for keyboard students.

He also produced twelve thick concertos, published in 1740, but unlike the standardized forms that were in use, derived from the French overture (fugue opening and dance sequence), the church sonata (slow-fast-slow-slow) or Vivaldi”s model (fast-slow-slow), he gave himself great freedom in the organization of the movements and instrumentation, bringing them closer to the variable structures of Arcangelo Corelli, and usually concluded the pieces with a light movement, in dance rhythm. They are composed in the trio-sonata scheme, with three main voices, with extra parts that have, according to Harnoncourt, an ad libitum character, and can be omitted in the performance without essential loss. In any case, the instrumentation practice of the time allowed considerable freedom in the choice of instruments. They can be performed as true trio-sonatas, with only three instrumentalists plus the continuous bass for harmonic support, as quartets, or as a typical concerto grosso, with a trio formed by the two violins plus the cello solos (the concertino), as opposed to a more numerous orchestral ensemble (the ripieno). He left several sonatas for solo instrument – violin, flute, oboe – and continuous bass, which fit the same aesthetic profile as the trio-sonatas, and all are attractive for their freedom in the treatment of form and great melodic invention. The solo instruments are often interchangeable and left to the performer”s discretion, and the continuous bass can be performed in a variety of ways – harpsichord, lute, thiorba, or with obbligato cello or viola da gamba, etc. His various pieces for solo harpsichord were probably composed for his own pleasure and for the entertainment of friends. They are generally fantasies and dance suites, and show his deep knowledge of the peculiar characteristics of the instrument, and are highly idiomatic. His Lessons and Suites for harpsichord became the most popular pieces in their genre in their time, surpassing in sales similar collections by Rameau, Bach, and Couperin, and were pirated several times. He also wrote a volume of didactic fugues for harpsichord.

Händel”s last major instrumental compositions were the three Concertos for Two Choirs, premiered between 1747 and 1748 as interludes for three of his oratorios, Judas Maccabaeus, Joshua, and Alexander Balus. Its instrumentation is unique in Händel”s orchestral work, requiring a clear distribution of forces in two groups – hence its name: one of wind instruments, the primo coro, and another composed of the string orchestra and continuo, the secondo coro, which enabled the exploration of interesting antiphonal effects by placing the two groups far apart on stage. As was his habit, he used older material, and apparently chose pieces that had not fallen into popular taste and thus had little chance of being revived, but gave them all new and very brilliant instrumentation.

Händel”s fame at the height of his career was vast, considered one of the greatest musicians of his time. Lorenz Mizler said that six doctors of music could be made of him. But by the 1750s, the new generation was beginning to cast him aside. James Harris, deploring the superficiality of the newcomers, wrote that he was a model for the young for the ease of his invention, the universality of his ideas, his ability to portray the sublime, the terrible, the pathetic, genres in which no one had surpassed him. Charles Avison, of the new generation, praising in an essay the works of Rameau, Geminiani, Scarlatti and the English composers, passed over Händel in silence. In contrast, Oxford music professor William Hayes defended him by saying that just one chorus of his oratorios would swallow thousands of Rameau”s choruses, as Aaron”s rod, converted into a serpent, swallowed those of the Egyptian magicians, and challenged the other to explain his omission. Avison retracted the remark, comparing Händel to the celebrated poet John Dryden, but with the caveat that Händel often fell into errors and excesses, and already seemed old-fashioned, although his qualities outweighed his defects.

The centenary of his birth in 1784 was celebrated with great festivals in London and elsewhere in Europe, with performances of his works by gigantic orchestras and choirs, and festivals were organized annually with his oratorios during Lent, a practice which continued until the end of the century. Between 1787 and 1797 Samuel Arnold offered to the public the first collection of Händel”s complete works, actually a weak edition in every respect and far from deserving the title “complete”; yet it was eagerly received by Beethoven, who admired him deeply and said of the edition, “There lies Truth”. Beethoven also said that he was the greatest composer who had ever existed, and that before his grave he would kneel and take off his hat. According to an account by the singer Michael Kelly, Gluck kept a large portrait of Händel richly framed in his bedroom and revered him every day when he woke up. However, much of his music fell out of fashion soon after his death, but at least in the UK some pieces never left the repertoire, such as the Messiah, some choruses and arias from his operas and oratorios, some concertos and instrumental sonatas. His anthem Zadok, the Priest has been performed at every coronation ceremony in the UK since it was composed for the consecration of King George II in 1727. From the 19th century onwards his oratorios again became favorite pieces in Halle and other German cities. Haydn called him “the master of us all” and said that before he heard Joshua in London he did not know half the power that music possessed. The great oratorios he composed after this experience reveal his debt to Händel. Liszt and Schumann also declared themselves his admirers.

But his recovery by the rest of the European public and even among many connoisseurs was slow, despite the publication of a very popular biography by William Rockstro in 1883 and a second version of his complete works between 1858 and 1902 by the Händel-Gesellschaft, a monumental work conducted largely by Friedrich Chrysander. Tchaikovsky classified him as a fourth-rate composer, didn”t even consider him interesting; Stravinsky marveled that he was so famous, because it seemed to him that Händel was not capable of developing a musical theme all the way through. Cyril Scott said about the same time that no serious musician was able to stand Messiah.

Only in 1920 was a complete opera by Händel re-presented since the last one had been staged in 1754. It was Rodelinda, conducted by Oskar Hagan in Göttingen, which directly influenced the creation in 1922 of a tradition of annual festivals in that city. In 1925 the Neue Händel-Gesellschaft was founded on the initiative of the musicologist Arnold Schering, publishing a yearbook of scholarly studies and beginning the publication of his complete works, the Hallische-Händel-Ausgabe, as well as organizing concerts in Leipzig. In 1931 another society emerged to promote his work, the Göttinger Händel-Gesellschaft. Four years later Erich Mühler published his correspondence and other writings, and a little later in London another Händelian association appeared, the Handel Society. From 1945 Halle became the focus of a revivalist wave of his music. In 1948 his house in Halle was transformed into the House of Händel museum, and from 1955 the Georg-Friedrich-Händel-Gesellschaft financed the publication of the Hallische-Händel-Ausgabe, and announced the production of another complete, more critical edition. In the same year, Otto Deutsch published his important work Handel: a Documentary Biography, and Edward Dent facilitated the founding of the Handel Opera Society to publicize his operatic work.

The panorama began to improve noticeably at the end of the 1950s when the Baroque music as a whole began to receive more attention, giving way to more historicist approaches to interpretation, based on period instruments, more appropriate tempos, lighter textures, the use of countertenors for the castrato parts, together with experiments in ornamentation and improvisation which were vital in the Baroque, but in this sense everything was still to be done. On the other hand, there was the double complication of, on the one hand, mounting several of his operas in modern settings, with librettos “updated” by stage directors of experimental vein, in order to make them more popular, and on the other hand, falling into the opposite extreme, mounting them in an excessively antiquarian, “correct and prudent” approach, devitalizing them. In 1979 Bernd Baselt, through the Hallische Händel-Ausgabe, began publication of the Händel Handbuch, which contains the thematic catalog of the complete Händelian works, organized by the numbering HWV (short for Händel-Werke-Verzeichnis: Catalogue of the Works of Händel).

Winton Dean, who opened the international Händelian conference held in London in July 1985, commemorating the third centenary of his birth, said that until then little serious research had been done on Händel, which was unjustified, given his importance to Western music, and compared with what had already appeared on Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Haydn. Moreover, for him, his music throughout the 20th century had been distorted, among other reasons by the nefarious application of Wagnerian Romantic principles to interpretations of his Baroque aesthetic, including fanciful orchestrations, voice changes, octave transpositions, and tempo markings very alien to the spirit of the time. These aberrations had already been condemned by George Bernard Shaw in the late 19th century, but were heard until the 1960s. Dean also censured the continuance in the trade of low-quality editions, the inability of musicians to free themselves from their enslavement to the written score when it was already known that Händel”s text was often only a basic script for practical performance, and the resistance of performers to apply in practice the latest discoveries of musicology, which often sound “wrong” simply because they contrast with ingrained but inauthentic habits. If on the one hand, amidst such problems, much forgotten Händelian music was returned to the stage, in the process almost everything that gave it character and vitality was lost and only the taste of ignorance was satisfied; strictly speaking, they can hardly be considered Händel pieces, but rather “flatulent arrangements,” as the author ironically put it.

Ten years later Paul Lang was still making the same complaint, saying that Händel was still the least understood and most misunderstood composer in history, and although he was already considered one of the monuments of Western music, his biographies and critical studies were still loaded with historical biases and misconceptions, both pro and con. He added that among the general public he remained just the composer of Messiah and that many of his operas that had recently been successfully revived continued to be presented from “corrected” editions, abridged and mutilated in various ways, possibly doing a disservice to knowledge of his true musical stature. However, he acknowledged that modern audiences are no longer as willing as the Baroque to tackle the enormous sequence of numbers of an oratorio or an opera in its entirety, and that cuts sometimes become an imperative, in the spirit that a concert is not a cult experience where any interference with the text is considered a profanation or a heresy, but is a spectacle that needs to remain interesting throughout its duration. He also said that the very existence of works in several authentic but different versions justifies edited modern representations, but this must be done, when necessary, with extreme care. Baroque music conductor and performer Nicholas McGegan, artistic director of the Händel Festival in Göttingen, commented objectively in 2002 that one cannot be dogmatic in any way, because the situations of each performance are different, meet different expectations, and fulfill diverse needs of audiences, musicians, and producers alike, and that this kind of adapted staging is intentionally designed as a commercial product rather than a historical document.

In any case, his presence in the musical life of the West seems assured. There is already an enormous discography, academic works continue to appear in quantity, and various societies are active in various countries exclusively for the performance of his works or to promote specialized studies. In 2001 his house in London was transformed into the Handel House Museum. His effigy has appeared several times on commemorative stamps of European countries, and also of Guinea Bissau and India, besides illustrating a number of souvenirs and commercial products such as watches, cigarette boxes, medals, napkins, postcards, and others. His figure has even appeared as a resin knickknack, and in a deck of cards his image replaced the joker. New York City offers the Handel Medallion as the highest official honor for contributions to municipal culture, the city of Halle an der Saale holds the Händel-Preis awarded for exceptional cultural, artistic, or political services related to the Händel Festival, and his name has named a crater on the planet Mercury.


  1. Georg Friedrich Händel
  2. George Frideric Handel