Handel: where to start with his music

Hallelujah! This week, the composer whose music illuminated Georgian London, and who refined the art of bringing emotion alive in works that still resonate for us today

A German composer who brought Italian musical fashions to a London audience, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) is the baroque era’s theatre composer extraordinaire, whose 42 operas and two-dozen oratorios refined the art of bringing human emotion alive in music. Writing to the strengths of the greatest singers of his era, he composed arias in which dazzling vocal fireworks sat cheek by jowl with moments of heart-stopping beauty. He was also the composer for many of the state occasions in Georgian England, creating a ceremonial sound-world that still resonates for us, three centuries later.

The music you might recognise

If it sounds both stately and celebratory, chances are it’s by Handel. Think of the Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah, the Music for the Royal Fireworks or The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. Would the Champions League seem such a noble pursuit if it didn’t have its theme tune, an unashamed mashup of Handel’s coronation anthem Zadok the Priest? The original Zadok has been sung at every British coronation since George II’s – you hear it in The Crown as Claire Foy is made “a goddess”. It’s also in The Madness of King George, as a raging Nigel Hawthorne is strapped to a chair. Less nobly, Handel’s aria Ombra mai fu is the background for some seriously come-hither looks from John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons.

His life

Handel was born in Halle, 20 miles from Leipzig, in 1685 – the same year as JS Bach. There’s a story that his father, a successful barber-surgeon, was so adamant that his son study law rather than music that the rest of the family had to smuggle a clavichord into the attic for the young Georg Friedrich to practice on. Whether or not that’s true, his luck changed when, on a trip to the court, he was overheard playing the organ by the duke, who insisted his talent be encouraged. Aged 17, he got his first job as an organist but he was already looking beyond life as a church musician, and the following year he left for Hamburg and its famous opera house.

He started off as a second violinist in the opera house orchestra but was soon promoted to play harpsichord continuo – which meant that, as well as playing the accompaniment during the recitatives (the speech-like passages between arias), he was effectively leading the performances in the way a conductor does today. He also got to compose: his first two operas were performed a few weeks before his 20th birthday.

Soon his itchy feet took him to Italy, the centre of all things operatic. In fashionable Venice, he had his first big hit with his opera Agrippina. In Rome, composers were circumventing a papal edict prohibiting opera by instead writing oratorios (works similar to opera but unstaged, and based on biblical or otherwise edifying stories) that were as epic and dramatic as anything on the stage. It was in Rome that Handel wrote his first two of these, Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno and La Resurrezione, along with a huge number of cantatas and church music including his grand Dixit Dominus.

Always a good networker, in Venice Handel secured prestigious invitations to the courts of Hanover and London. He stopped off in Hanover for long enough to be signed up as Kapellmeister (head of music) at the court of the Elector, Georg Ludwig (soon to be George I of England) and to befriend his son, the future George II. As soon as he arrived in London he was snapped up to write the music for Rinaldo, the first opera to be written for a London theatre in the then-fashionable language of Italian. He finished it in just two weeks, partly thanks to his reuse of music from previous works performed elsewhere: the heroine’s Lascia ch’io piango, for example, is a reworking of Il Trionfo del Tempo’s Lascia la spina. This skilful recycling would serve him well throughout his career: many of his best tunes appear in more than one work.

Two years later Handel, now anglicising himself as George Frideric, settled in England for good. Following royal commissions including the Ode for Queen Anne’s Birthday (which opens with the haunting Eternal Source of Light Divine) he was awarded an annual pension by the queen. He had kept up his Hanoverian connections, too, which served him well when Anne died and his former employer George I took the throne.

… and times

St Paul’s Cathedral, declared officially complete the year before Handel arrived in London.
St Paul’s Cathedral, declared officially complete the year before Handel arrived in London. Photograph: Hollie Adams/Getty Images

London was a prosperous world city, its skyline newly dominated by the dome of St Paul’s, but its political situation was insecure. The Act of Settlement that made Queen Anne’s distant Protestant cousin her heir had meant several dozen Catholic relatives were passed over, and the threat of an uprising was present enough to cause periodic disruption in the city.

Handel, meanwhile, was busy, making connections and perfecting the art of the short but memorable melody in his instrumental sonatas. His Water Music entertained the royals on an all-night boat party up and down the Thames. His mini-opera Acis and Galatea was written during his two years working for James Brydges, later the Duke of Chandos. In 1719, he founded an opera company at the King’s theatre (now Her Majesty’s) on Haymarket, called the Royal Academy of Music (no relation to today’s conservatoire), financed by subscribers in a kind of crowdfunding campaign. Handel travelled in continental Europe to hand-pick an enviable troupe of singers headed by the castrato known as Senesino – the practice of castrating promising boy singers before puberty was at this point creating some of the biggest stars of the operatic stage.

Christianne Stotijn as Tamerlano and Sara Mingardo as Andronico in a 2010 production of Tamerlano at the Royal Opera House.
Christianne Stotijn as Tamerlano and Sara Mingardo as Andronico in a 2010 production of Tamerlano at the Royal Opera House. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

He wrote in quick succession some of his greatest operas: Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano and Rodelinda were all premiered within 12 months. All had showstopping solos tailor-made for their stars: Dove sei from Rodelinda, for example, was a vehicle for Senesino’s famously beguiling long notes. By now Handel had moved into the new house on Brook Street that would be his home for the rest of his life; it is open today as a museum, its name – Handel & Hendrix in London – reflecting the fact that two centuries later another celebrated musician would move in next door.

Employing divas brought problems. His leading soprano, Francesca Cuzzoni, initially refused to sing her opening aria in Ottone, something Handel dealt with by threatening to throw her out of the window. History does not record whether he was scowling or laughing as he did this, and contemporary sources ascribe to him both a quick temper and a ready sense of humour, so take your pick. The arrival of another, equally feted soprano, Faustina Bordoni, set up a rivalry that in gossip circles began to eclipse what the two actually sang. By the time the Royal Academy folded, the squabbles between Team Cuzzoni and Team Faustina were being satirised in print and on stage. Moreover, subscribers were defaulting, partly as a result of the South Sea Bubble – a major financial crisis caused by overspeculation in the South Sea Company – which gives an idea of how much London society money was tied up in the slave trade.

Handel himself took on joint management of the King’s theatre and established the Second Royal Academy. It soon had to contend with a rival company supported by the king’s estranged son Frederick, the Prince of Wales (George II had been crowned in 1727 in a ceremony including four Coronation Anthems by Handel; one of the last acts of George I had been to make Handel a British citizen). In this competitive atmosphere, works including Partenope (a rare comic-ish opera for Handel), Ariodante, Alcina and Serse followed. Serse includes the aria Ombra mai fu: also known as Handel’s Largo, it’s a respectful love song that’s no less affecting for being sung by an emperor to a tree.

A scene from Saul, in a 2015 Glyndebourne festivalproduction directed by Barrie Kosky.
A scene from Saul, in a 2015 Glyndebourne festival
production directed by Barrie Kosky.
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Deidamia, premiered in 1741, was Handel’s last opera. The fashion had moved on to English-language oratorios, performed in theatres but unstaged – a change that had come about largely through the success of Handel’s own oratorios, Esther, Saul and Israel in Egypt among them. Often these include an interlude in the form of an orchestral concerto grosso or one of Handel’s organ concertos, which he would have played himself. Semele, which tells the story of one of Jupiter’s conquests in rather salacious fashion, is something of a wild card; works such as Theodora and Judas Maccabaeus stick to more obviously improving stories of noble sacrifice.

Why his music still matters

As far as we know, no opera by Handel was performed anywhere between 1754 – five years before his death – and 1920. Today, his work is central repertoire for opera companies worldwide. What has brought about this reversal in fortune? It’s partly that stage directors, from Nicholas Hytner to Peter Sellars to Katie Mitchell, have found Handel’s operas fertile ground for productions that speak of modern-day issues. But mainly it’s Handel’s empathetic depiction of his characters, and the way he shapes a story in music. His most enduring oratorio of all – Messiah, first performed in Dublin in 1742 – tells the Christmas story to listeners across the world every year.

Great performers

The Handel revival that began in the 1920s got a boost a generation later with the attentions of star singers including Joan Sutherland and Fritz Wunderlich. Today, for singers we are spoilt for choice; mezzo-sopranos including Sarah Connolly and Ann Hallenberg especially stand out. Thanks to the gender-fluid nature of baroque opera, those heroic castrato parts can be especially rewarding “trouser roles” for women. Alan Curtis, Paul McCreesh and Nicholas McGegan have been at the helm of some outstanding performances of the operas, oratorios and choral music, and William Christie’s bar-raising period instrument ensemble Les Arts Florissants has been the training ground for a number of dramatically astute keyboard-playing conductors, including Marc Minkowski, Emmanuelle Haïm and Christophe Rousset.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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