Thursday, February 23, 2006


Georg Friedrich Handel was born on this day in 1685 in Halle, Saxony.

The son of a musicthropic barber-surgeon, young Georg Friedrich practiced keyboard playing on a muted spinet in the attic while bearing up to his father's demands that he prepare for a career in law. The Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels happened to hear the young maestro play the organ, and was so enthusiastic that he handed Handel, Sr. a sack of gold and told him to encourage young Georg by procuring music lessons for him.

By the time he was 12, Handel had mastered oboe, violin and keyboard, was composing church music at the Halle Lutheran church, and had begun to amass a reputation as a prodigy-organ soloist. He dutifully enrolled in law school after his father died in 1697, but he soon drifted back to music as a violinist in the Hamburg Opera under the direction of Reinhard Keiser. Keiser first encouraged the teen phenom, handing him a libretto for an opera and persuading him to try his hand at composing for the stage. When Handel turned out a highly successful Italianate opera (then all the rage), Almira (1704), Keiser jealously drove him out of Hamburg.

He landed in Florence, where he aspired to write more Italianate operas, but instead made an instant impression with an Italianate oratorio, La Resurezzione (1708), conducted by Corelli at its premiere. Now heralded as "Il Sassone" ("the Saxon"), Handel enjoyed celebrity-status as a composer and master organist. In 1709, he was goaded into a keyboard competition against Domenico Scarlatti which, like an old-time Addie Joss-Ed Walsh pitching duel, resulted in something like a dead heat: Scarlatti was given the edge at harpsichord, but Handel was conceded the organ crown -- leading Scarlatti to cross himself whenever Handel's name came up thereafter.

Handel returned to Germany in 1710, taking the job as kappelmeister to George, elector of Hanover, at a salary 20 times what Bach was making in Weimar. Now quite the cosmopolitan dandy, Handel quickly grew restless and applied for a sabbatical in London, where he staged shamelessly commercial operas and dedicated some incidental pieces to Queen Anne, who awarded him a stipend to keep him hanging around London. In 1714, however, Anne died and Handel's proper boss George became George I of Great Britain, leaving Handel feeling a little like he had moved into his mistress' house and found that his wife was now his new landlord. While his relations with George were initially strained, George soon saw Handel as his goodwill gift to London. By 1717, when the king floated down the Thames in a barge accompanied by an orchestra playing Handel's Water Music -- which bobbed along with stately poise on trumpety sea-legs, heroically shifting its timpani sea-arse -- George and Handel were already partners in diplomatic service.

Handel promptly anglicized his name and returned to churning out more ghastly operas -- plotless, decadently-staged castrati-fests which showed flashes of original virtuosic musical inspiration stitched together by wanton plagiarism. London audiences, once captivated by all the visual and aural pyrotechnics, grew tired of the Italianate opera with the rise of popular middle-class operas in English, typified by John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728). Handel refused to learn the lesson all at once, however, and went broke supporting two opera companies until he decided to return at the end of the 1730s to his Florentine roots as a composer of his own unique brand of oratorios -- concert choral pieces written with the dramatic flair of opera, with libretti in English. Saul, Israel in Egypt, Ode of St. Cecilia, and L'Allegro, Il Pensieroso ed il Moderato (on a text by Milton) all proved to be popular and inexpensively staged pieces.

In 1741, the viceroy of Ireland invited him to write something for a charity concert in Dublin. In 24 days Handel feverishly produced a gargantuan oratorio on the coming of Christ called The Messiah. So frenzied was he that when he finished its finale, the "Hallelujah" chorus, the old impresario was literally overcome with religious ecstasy, stunned by the majesty of his own creation. The work -- accessibly tuneful, yet crafted for maximum dramatic effect -- instantly cast a spell on the premiere audience, and in successive performances it secured Handel's place, not simply as a successful hack, but as a sublime musical genius.

For a few generations -- until Beethoven achieved mythic status in his dotage -- it was Handel, not Bach, who was regarded as the greatest of the great. Handel basked in the glow of it for the next decade while continuing to write more music (notably the Royal Fireworks Music, 1749, which had its premiere marred by a fire from the fireworks which sent George II and his subjects scrambling). In 1751, however, Handel's eyesight began to fail. He had 3 operations by the surgeon who was working on Bach's eyes around the same time before going blind; he carried on another 8 years giving organ recitals and conducting until he died at 74. He was given an elaborate funeral at Westminster Abbey, reminiscent in pomp and excess of the staging of his own operas back in the 1720s.

The old joke about "Handel bars" would of course not evolve until well after the invention of the bicycle by Kirkpatrick Macmillan in the 1830s.



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