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Learn about the German composer, George Frideric Handel, and his works & life.

George Frideric Handel: Overview:

  • Born: 1685 - Brandenburg, Germany
  • Died: 1759 - LondonEngland
  • Historical Period: Baroque 
  • Musical Media: orchestra, chamber music, keyboard, opera, choral, song

Composer, George Frederic Handel

George Frideric Handel was a German composer born in the year 1685 in Brandenburg to a modest family. As an individual born at the latter stages of the Baroque era, he is highly regarded for his numerous operas, oratorios, and instrumentals. Among these, Messiah (1741) was the crème de la crème in his repertoire along with earlier works such as Water Music from 1717. The musical stalwart passed away in the year 1759. 

George Frideric Handel: The Maestro for the Ages

George Frideric Handel’s parents were Georg and Dorothea Handel. From an early age, Handel’s father had serious objections to his musical interests, although his mother was supportive. His musical education continued past his father’s death, and in 1702, he was admitted to the University of Halle as a law student. Additionally, he joined as an organist at the Calvinist Cathedral for a year. At this early age, he also got to perform at Weissenfels, in the duke’s court, where he came in contact with Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, the latter inviting the young boy to be his pupil. 

Handel was also a part of the opera orchestra whereupon he took up the responsibilities of a harpsichordist. His first opera was in the year 1705, and the subsequent years till 1710 were spent travelling throughout Italy, where he was acquainted with masters like Corelli and Scarlatti. During his time there, Handel also wrote a number of works, such as Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno in 1707, and Aci, Galatea e Polifemo in 1708. 

After considerable success at the Venetian musical scene, Handel departed for London in 1710. There, the young composer was commissioned to write an opera for the King’s Theatre. Following this, he became the Kapellmeister at Hanover for the future English king, George I. In the next couple of weeks, Handel wrote Rinaldo (1711). He produced his Il pastor fido and Teseo, both in 1713. He also wrote the Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne in 1713, which earned him royal appreciation. His composition, the Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate (1713), was in celebration of the Treaty of Utrecht. 

The Duke of Chandos hired Handel as his director of music in 1718, where the composer went on to write pieces such as 11 Chandos Anthems and Acis and Galatea. Haman and Mordecai were produced in 1720, as the first version of Esther. Among his works during this time also include Floridante (1721), Ottone (1723) and Rodelinda (1725). The year 1727 was when Handel decided to change his nationality to British, and he subsequently took up the post of Chapel Royal. During this period, he wrote pieces such as Coronation Anthems for King George II (1727) and Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline (1737). 

In his capacity as Chapel Royal, Handel also released Alessandro in 1727. Due to a major competition between performers, the opera scene became scandalous which frustrated the committed composer. Segregating himself from the Royal Academy, Handel opened the New Royal Academy of Music. Then, he produced The Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline in 1737 which was extremely popular, and the subsequent oratorios, Saul (1738) and Israel in Egypt (1739), further cemented his place as a musical master. As an example of his generous nature, Handel wrote the Twelve Grand Concertos, Op. 6, that was composed to facilitate the Fund for the Support of Decayed Musicians in 1738. 

Despite his brilliance, Handel’s Messiah did not taste immediate success. This was composed at a time when Handel had piled up a big debt, consequent to a series of failed compositions. The libretto was created by Charles Jennens, a close friend, who adapted the material from the Bible. Based on Christ’s life, this was then taken by Handel, and with charitable funding from Dublin, Ireland, he was able to finish Messiah. As an oratorio of 260 pages, the total composition happened over a period of 24 days, and part II concludes with Hallelujah, a chorus in D major. 

Going forward, Handel wrote Joseph and His Brethren in 1743 and Belshazzar in 1744, in addition to Semele and Hercules in 1744. These were accompanied by Dettingen Te Deum in 1743, in honor of the British victory at the Battle of Dettingen. The Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749), was to commemorate the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. Overcoming a rapidly deteriorating eyesight, Handel completed the Jephtha in 1751, the performance happening at the Covent Garden Theatre. A part of Rinaldo, Lascia ch’io pianga, was particularly popular along with Piangerò la sorte mia from Giulio Cesare (1724) and Care selve from Atalanta (1736). Judas Maccabaeus, one of his most famous oratorios, was written in 1746.  

Handel’s composition along the 1720s in London was full of Italian pieces. Despite this, he came under criticism when his works were compared to English works of a more informal nature. It is because of this that the composer took to oratorios, which did a good job at attracting the English crowd, particularly the middle classes. Initially imbibed with Germanic styles, Handel’s tunes eventually adopted more Italian tastes acquired over his residence in Italy. 

Handel’s compositional genius stems from his mastery of choral music. Indeed, such was his charisma, that the great Beethoven himself once said that he would bare his head and kneel at Handel’s grave out of immense respect. Handel had an uncanny ability to mix harmonic passages with contrapuntal parts for a piece. Handel’s physical health started suffering from the 1730s. He had a stroke in 1737, resulting in right arm paralysis and loss of his mental capabilities. In spite of this, he recovered enough to live normally till 1759, when he breathed his last.

 

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