George Frideric Handel

In the Olympic games of music history, Bach and Handel share the gold medal platform as greatest composers of the Baroque era. However, that is the view from our twenty-first-century vantage point. In the late Baroque era, there would have been only reigning composer, and that composer was Handel.

While Bach was respected as a supremely gifted organist, his compositions would have been little known outside the region of Germany in which he lived and worked. Handel, on the other hand, was internationally famous during his lifetime, and, largely due to his oratorios—well known and highly regarded in the decades and centuries that followed his death.


Figure 1. Portrait of Handel, by Balthasar Denner

Figure 1. Portrait of Handel, by Balthasar Denner

George Frideric (or Frederick) Handel born Georg Friedrich Händel (5 March 1685–14 April 1759) was a German-born, British Baroque composer who spent the bulk of his career in London, becoming well known for his operas, oratorios, anthems and organ concertos. Born in a family indifferent to music, Handel received critical training in Halle, Hamburg and Italy before settling in London (1712), and became a naturalized British subject in 1727. He was strongly influenced both by the great composers of the Italian Baroque and the middle-German polyphonic choral tradition.

Within fifteen years, Handel had started three commercial opera companies to supply the English nobility with Italian opera. Musicologist Winton Dean writes that his operas show that “Handel was not only a great composer; he was a dramatic genius of the first order.” As Alexander’s Feast (1736) was well received, Handel made a transition to English choral works. After his success with Messiah (1742) he never performed an Italian opera again. Almost blind, and having lived in England for nearly fifty years, he died in 1759, a respected and rich man. His funeral was given full state honours, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Born the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti, Handel is regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Baroque era, with works such as Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks and Messiah remaining steadfastly popular. One of his four Coronation Anthems, Zadok the Priest (1727), composed for the coronation of George II of Great Britain, has been performed at every subsequent British coronation, traditionally during the sovereign’s anointing. Handel composed more than forty operas in over thirty years, and since the late 1960s, with the revival of baroque music and historically informed musical performance, interest in Handel’s operas has grown.

Move to London

Figure 2. George Frideric Handel (left) and King George I on the River Thames, 17 July 1717, by Edouard Hamman (1819–88).

Figure 2. George Frideric Handel (left) and King George I on the River Thames, 17 July 1717, by Edouard Hamman (1819–88).

In 1710, Handel became Kapellmeister to German prince George, the Elector of Hanover, who in 1714 would become King George I of Great Britain and Ireland. He visited Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici and her husband in Düsseldorf on his way to London in 1710. With his opera Rinaldo, based on La Gerusalemme Liberata by the Italian poet Torquato Tasso, Handel enjoyed great success, although it was composed quickly, with many borrowings from his older Italian works. This work contains one of Handel’s favourite arias, Cara sposa, amante cara, and the famous Lascia ch’io pianga.

In 1712, Handel decided to settle permanently in England. He received a yearly income of £200 from Queen Anne after composing for her the Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate, first performed in 1713.

One of his most important patrons was The 3rd Earl of Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork, a young and incredibly wealthy member of an Anglo-Irish aristocratic family. For the young Lord Burlington, Handel wrote Amadigi di Gaula, a magical opera, about a damsel in distress, based on the tragedy by Antoine Houdar de la Motte.

The conception of an opera as a coherent structure was slow to capture Handel’s imagination and he composed no operas for five years. In July 1717 Handel’s Water Music was performed more than three times on the Thames for the King and his guests. It is said the compositions spurred reconciliation between the King and Handel.

Royal Academy of Music

Figure 3. Handel House at 25 Brook Street, Mayfair, London

Figure 3. Handel House at 25 Brook Street, Mayfair, London

In May 1719, The 1st Duke of Newcastle, the Lord Chamberlain, ordered Handel to look for new singers. Handel travelled to Dresden to attend the newly built opera. He saw Teofane by Antonio Lotti, and engaged members of the cast for the Royal Academy of Music, founded by a group of aristocrats to assure themselves a constant supply of baroque opera or opera seria. Handel may have invited John Smith, his fellow student in Halle, and his son Johann Christoph Schmidt, to become his secretary and amanuensis. By 1723 he had moved into a Georgian house at 25 Brook Street, which he rented for the rest of his life. This house, where he rehearsed, copied music and sold tickets, is now the Handel House Museum. During twelve months between 1724 and 1725, Handel wrote three outstanding and successful operas, Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano and Rodelinda. Handel’s operas are filled with da capo arias, such as Svegliatevi nel core. After composing Silete venti, he concentrated on opera and stopped writing cantatas. Scipio, from which the regimental slow march of the British Grenadier Guards is derived, was performed as a stopgap, waiting for the arrival of Faustina Bordoni.

In 1727 Handel was commissioned to write four anthems for the Coronation ceremony of King George II. One of these, Zadok the Priest, has been played at every British coronation ceremony since. In 1728 John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera premiered at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre and ran for 62 consecutive performances, the longest run in theatre history up to that time. After nine years the Royal Academy of Music ceased to function but Handel soon started a new company.

The Queen’s Theatre at the Haymarket (now Her Majesty’s Theatre), established in 1705 by architect and playwright John Vanbrugh, quickly became an opera house. Between 1711 and 1739, more than 25 of Handel’s operas premièred there. In 1729 Handel became joint manager of the theatre with John James Heidegger.

Handel travelled to Italy to engage new singers and also composed seven more operas, among them the comic masterpiece Partenope and the “magic” opera Orlando. After two commercially successful English oratorios Esther and Deborah, he was able to invest again in the South Sea Company. Handel reworked his Acis and Galatea which then became his most successful work ever. Handel failed to compete with the Opera of the Nobility, who engaged musicians such as Johann Adolph Hasse, Nicolo Porpora and the famous castrato Farinelli. The strong support by Frederick, Prince of Wales caused conflicts in the royal family. In March 1734 Handel composed a wedding anthem This is the day which the Lord hath made, and a serenata Parnasso in Festa for Anne of Hanover.

Despite the problems the Opera of the Nobility was causing him at the time, Handel’s neighbour in Brook Street, Mary Delany, reported on a party she invited Handel to at her house on 12 April 1734 where he was in good spirits:

I had Lady Rich and her daughter, Lady Cath. Hanmer and her husband, Mr. and Mrs. Percival, Sir John Stanley and my brother, Mrs. Donellan, Strada [star soprano of Handel’s operas] and Mr. Coot. Lord Shaftesbury begged of Mr. Percival to bring him, and being a profess’d friend of Mr. Handel (who was here also) was admitted; I never was so well entertained at an opera! Mr. Handel was in the best humour in the world, and played lessons and accompanied Strada and all the ladies that sang from seven o’clock till eleven. I gave them tea and coffee, and about half an hour after nine had a salver brought in of chocolate, mulled white wine and biscuits. Everybody was easy and seemed pleased.

Opera at Covent Garden

In 1733 the Earl of Essex received a letter with the following sentence: “Handel became so arbitrary a prince, that the Town murmurs.” The board of chief investors expected Handel to retire when his contract ended, but Handel immediately looked for another theatre. In cooperation with John Rich he started his third company at Covent Garden Theatre. Rich was renowned for his spectacular productions. He suggested Handel use his small chorus and introduce the dancing of Marie Sallé, for whom Handel composed Terpsichore. In 1735 he introduced organ concertos between the acts. For the first time Handel allowed Gioacchino Conti, who had no time to learn his part, to substitute arias. Financially, Ariodante was a failure, although he introduced ballet suites at the end of each act. Alcina, his last opera with a magic content, and Alexander’s Feast or the Power of Musicbased on John Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast starred Anna Maria Strada del Pò and John Beard.

In April 1737, at age 52, Handel apparently suffered a stroke which disabled the use of four fingers on his right hand, preventing him from performing. In summer the disorder seemed at times to affect his understanding. Nobody expected that Handel would ever be able to perform again. But whether the affliction was rheumatism, a stroke or a nervous breakdown, he recovered remarkably quickly. To aid his recovery, Handel had travelled to Aachen, a spa in Germany. During six weeks he took long hot baths, and ended up playing the organ for a surprised audience. It was even possible for him to write one of his most popular operas, Serse (including the famous aria Ombra mai fù, better known as “Handel’s largo,” he wrote for the famous castrato Caffarelli), just one year after his stroke.

Deidamia, his last opera, was performed three times in 1741. Handel gave up the opera business, while he enjoyed more success with his English oratorios.


Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno, an allegory, Handel’s first oratorio was composed in Italy in 1707, followed by La resurrezione in 1708 which uses material from the Bible. The circumstances of Esther and its first performance, possibly in 1718, are obscure. Another 12 years had passed when an act of piracy caused him to take up Esther once again. Three earlier performances aroused such interest that they naturally prompted the idea of introducing it to a larger public. Next came Deborah, strongly coloured by the Coronation Anthems and Athaliah, his first English Oratorio. In these three oratorios Handel laid the foundation for the traditional use of the chorus which marks his later oratorios. Handel became sure of himself, broader in his presentation, and more diverse in his composition.

It is evident how much he learned from Arcangelo Corelli about writing for instruments, and from Alessandro Scarlatti about writing for the solo voice; but there is no single composer who taught him how to write for chorus. Handel tended more and more to replace Italian soloists by English ones. The most significant reason for this change was the dwindling financial returns from his operas. Thus a tradition was created for oratorios which was to govern their future performance. The performances were given without costumes and action; the singers appeared in their own clothes.

Figure 4. Caricature of Handel by Joseph Goupy (1754)

Figure 4. Caricature of Handel by Joseph Goupy (1754)

In 1736 Handel produced Alexander’s Feast. John Beard appeared for the first time as one of Handel’s principal singers and became Handel’s permanent tenor soloist for the rest of Handel’s life. The piece was a great success and it encouraged Handel to make the transition from writing Italian operas to English choral works. In Saul, Handel was collaborating with Charles Jennens and experimenting with three trombones, a carillon and extra-large military kettledrums (from the Tower of London), to be sure “it will be most excessive noisy.” Saul and Israel in Egypt both from 1739 head the list of great, mature oratorios, in which the da capo aria became the exception and not the rule. Israel in Egyptconsists of little else but choruses, borrowing from the Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline. In his next works Handel changed his course. In these works he laid greater stress on the effects of orchestra and soloists; the chorus retired into the background. L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato has a rather diverting character; the work is light and fresh.

During the summer of 1741, The 3rd Duke of Devonshire invited Handel to Dublin, capital of the Kingdom of Ireland, to give concerts for the benefit of local hospitals. His Messiah was first performed at the New Music Hall in Fishamble Street on 13 April 1742, with 26 boys and five men from the combined choirs of St Patrick’s and Christ Church cathedrals participating. Handel secured a balance between soloists and chorus which he never surpassed.

In 1747 Handel wrote his oratorio Alexander Balus. This work was produced at Covent Garden Theatre, on March 23, 1748, and to the aria Hark! hark! He strikes the golden lyre, Handel wrote the acccompaniment for mandolin, harp, violin, viola, and violoncello.

The use of English soloists reached its height at the first performance of Samson. The work is highly theatrical. The role of the chorus became increasingly important in his later oratorios. Jephtha was first performed on 26 February 1752; even though it was his last oratorio, it was no less a masterpiece than his earlier works.


Handel’s compositions include 42 operas, 29 oratorios, more than 120 cantatas, trios and duets, numerous arias, chamber music, a large number of ecumenical pieces, odes and serenatas, and 16 organ concerti. His most famous work, the oratorio Messiah with its “Hallelujah” chorus, is among the most popular works in choral music and has become the centrepiece of the Christmas season. Among the works with opus numbers published and popularised in his lifetime are the Organ Concertos Op. 4 and Op. 7, together with the Opus 3 and Opus 6 concerti grossi; the latter incorporate an earlier organ concerto The Cuckoo and the Nightingale in which birdsong is imitated in the upper registers of the organ. Also notable are his sixteen keyboard suites, especially The Harmonious Blacksmith.

Handel introduced previously uncommon musical instruments in his works: the viola d’amore and violetta marina(Orlando), the lute (Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day), three trombones (Saul), clarinets or small high cornetts (Tamerlano), theorbo, French horn (Water Music), lyrichord, double bassoon, viola da gamba, bell chimes,positive organ, and harp (Giulio Cesare, Alexander’s Feast).


Figure 5. A Masquerade at the King's Theatre, Haymarket (c. 1724)

Figure 5. A Masquerade at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket (c. 1724)

Handel’s works were collected and preserved by two men: Sir Samuel Hellier, a country squire whose musical acquisitions form the nucleus of the Shaw-Hellier Collection, and the abolitionist Granville Sharp. The catalogue accompanying the National Portrait Gallery exhibition marking the tercentenary of the composer’s birth calls them two men of the late eighteenth century “who have left us solid evidence of the means by which they indulged their enthusiasm.”

After his death, Handel’s Italian operas fell into obscurity, except for selections such as the aria fromSerse, “Ombra mai fù.” The oratorios continued to be performed but not long after Handel’s death they were thought to need some modernisation, and Mozart orchestrated a German version of Messiah and other works. Throughout the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, particularly in the Anglophonecountries, his reputation rested primarily on his English oratorios, which were customarily performed by enormous choruses of amateur singers on solemn occasions. The centenary of his death, in 1859, was celebrated by a performance of Messiah at The Crystal Palace, involving 2,765 singers and 460 instrumentalists, who played for an audience of about 10,000 people.

Figure 6. A carved marble statue of Handel, created in 1738 by Louis-François Roubiliac

Figure 6. A carved marble statue of Handel, created in 1738 by Louis-François Roubiliac

Since the early music revival many of the forty-two operas he wrote have been performed in opera houses and concert halls. Giulio Cesare (1724), Tamerlano (1724) and Rodelinda (1725) each on a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym, stand out and are considered as masterpieces, each in a different style.

Recent decades have revived his secular cantatas and what one might call secular oratorios or concert operas. Of the former, Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day (1739) (set to texts by John Dryden) and Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne (1713) are noteworthy. For his secular oratorios, Handel turned to classical mythology for subjects, producing such works as Acis and Galatea (1719), Hercules (1745) and Semele (1744). These works have a close kinship with the sacred oratorios, particularly in the vocal writing for the English-language texts. They also share the lyrical and dramatic qualities of Handel’s Italian operas. As such, they are sometimes performed onstage by small chamber ensembles. With the rediscovery of his theatrical works, Handel, in addition to his renown as instrumentalist, orchestral writer, and melodist, is now perceived as being one of opera’s great musical dramatists.

The original form of his name, Georg Friedrich Händel, is generally used in Germany and elsewhere, but he is known as “Haendel” in France. A different composer, Jacob Handl or Händl (1550–1591) is usually known by the Latin form Jacobus Gallus that appears in his publications.


Handel has generally been accorded high esteem by fellow composers, both in his own time and since. Bach attempted, unsuccessfully, to meet with Handel while he was visiting Halle. Mozart is reputed to have said of him, “Handel understands affect better than any of us. When he chooses, he strikes like a thunder bolt.” To Beethoven he was “the master of us all . . . the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb.” Beethoven emphasized above all the simplicity and popular appeal of Handel’s music when he said, “Go to him to learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means.”