Hallelujah, Handel!


George Frideric Handel (in Germany, Georg Friedrich Händel) was born the same year as Bach, but unlike his compatriot, he saw no reason to remain in Germany his entire life. Instead, he traveled to Italy to soak up the new music being developed there, including operas, concertos and such. Later, when he learned that the Brits were going crazy over Italian opera, he sneaked away from a nice job in Germany and headed to London, where he ran into his former German boss – now England's king! Oops. He remained in Britain the rest of his life, creating a number of glorious operas and, most famously, oratorios such as the beloved Messiah. His life, like his music, was never dull, as we'll discover in this Active Minds program.


What a contrast between those two giants of the Baroque Era, Bach and Handel. Both were born in 1685 in German towns not that far apart. Both became masters of music, writing secular works (sonatas, concertos, etc.) and sacred works. On the other hand, Bach was married twice, while Handel never tied the knot. Handel wrote operas and oratorios, while Bach remained uninterested. But the greatest contrast can be found in a map of their travels. Though Bach never left the borders of what is now Germany, Handel roamed all over the continent – notably down to Italy, where he met and studied such great composers as Corelli and Scarlatti, finally landing in London, where he lived for most of his adult life. They came close to meeting, these two giants of music, but that encounter never occurred. Bach, however, became an admirer of Handel – a respect that was never reciprocated. In their way, each composer summed up the many advances of that busy musical period, notably the birth and development of the concerto, along with other works involving the newborn orchestra. Handel, benefiting from his travels, made enormous contributions to the musical theater, writing a series of lavish operas for his London fans (all in Italian, by the way) and, when the new craze of the oratorio emerged in England, penning several glorious works in that genre – notably Messiah. There is a clear personality that emerges in Handel's music, a confidence and optimism that reflects his nature: a man who, judging by his ever-expanding waist line, enjoyed the fruits (and cakes) of his success. Listening to his energetic works, such as “The Entrance of the Queen of Sheba” or one of his Anthems saluting the coronation of George II, we can't help but be struck by the power and brilliance of his music. Though most of his familiar works were penned in London, Handel did spend time as a resident composer with Prince Georg, the Elector of Hanover, back in Germany. Seeking a brief leave of absence from his boss, Handel headed to England (with little interest in returning to Germany). How embarrassing, then, when he learned that Prince Georg had been crowned King George I of England (yes, there were Germans who ruled England for a spell). To save face, Handel wrote the “Water Music,” to accompany the King's entourage sailing down the Thames. Fortunately, George I was willing to forget and forgive. It's just one of many fascinating episodes in the life of a remarkably successful composer, one beloved in his day and in all the days following his death in 1759. One of his greatest admirers was Beethoven, who called him “the greatest composer who ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb.” So would we all...

Exploration Questions

  • What sort of lavish stagings were used for Handel's operas in London?
  • Who provided the text for Messiah and other oratorios?
  • Why did Handel travel to Italy as a young composer?

Reflective Questions

  • How is it that some composers, such as Handel, are revered during and after their lifetimes, while others are, rightly or wrongly, ignored?
  • What are your favorite pieces by Handel, and why?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Lang, Paul Henry. George Frideric Handel (Dover Books on Music). Dover Publications. 2011. 784 pages. This is an exhaustive look at the composer's life, his music and his world, presented in readable, if scholarly, fashion.
    Click here to order
  • Hogwood, Christopher. Handel (Revised Edition). Thames & Hudson. 2007. 312 pages. Here is another well-researched biography, written with clarity by the noted musician (who recently passed away). Some parts may sail over the heads of readers not familiar with musical terminology – but otherwise, this is a first-rate reference source.
    Click here to order