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Georg Friedrich Handel:
The Maker of The Messiah

Remember Handel? Who, that was not born
Deaf as the dead to harmony, forgets,
Or can, the more than Homer of his age?
-- Cowper

Handel and Bach were the earliest of the great composers whose works are regularly performed to-day. Yet how little the average amateur knows about them! This is especially curious in the case of Handel, for Handel was English in everything but the accident of his birth. He spent nearly all his working life in England; he had himself "naturalised" as an Englishman; he wrote nearly every one of his notable works in England and to English words; and, gathering up all that had gone before him in English music, he embodied it in himself, and practically became the father of modern English composition. His remains rest with England’s own great in Westminster Abbey, and the recurrent Handel festival at the Crystal Palace, to say nothing of repeated performances of the Messiah by all the leading choral societies, keep his name and his music green.

Georg Friedrich Handel

George Frederick Handel was born at the quaint little town of Halle, about an hour’s ride from Leipzig, in February 1685. His father, then sixty-three years old, was one of those oft-mentioned barbers who were at the same time surgeons and dentists. He meant his George Frederick to be a lawyer, for music seemed to him an undignified sort of amusement, fit only for Italian fiddlers and French buffoons. Handel himself had a reminder of this idea when at Oxford, many years later, he and his company of fellow-professionals were described by one of the papers as "a lousy crew." Barber Handel showed himself very determined on the point. When his boy evinced an unmistakable bent for music, the barber did everything he could to thwart it. All musical instruments were put out of reach, and George was even kept from school in case he should there learn something of the tabooed art of St. Cecilia.

But George had managed to drag a rickety spinet (a weak-sounding kind of piano) away up to the attic where he slept, and when the rest of the household were in bed he would creep quietly to the instrument and exercise his tiny fingers until they ached and his eyes blinked. In this way he succeeded in teaching himself to play before any one knew anything about it. The full discovery came about rather curiously. Young Handel had a half-brother in the service of the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels, not far from Halle. One day, in 1692, the father set off on a visit to the Duke’s place. He had not gone far when he found that his seven-year-old George was running after the coach, and having no heart to turn the boy back, he took him along. The trifling circumstance formed the turning point in Handel’s career. One day, at Saxe-Weissenfels, he stole unnoticed to the organ in the Duke’s chapel. He began playing. The Duke happened to be near. He was a musical man, and he remarked the unusual touch of the little fingers. That decided it. He sent for Doctor Handel, told him he must not think of making a lawyer of his son, and practically gave orders that he should be set to the study of music at once. So young Handel was put to work with the cathedral organist at Halle. He laboured at harmony and counterpoint, and canon and fugue, and all the other dry bones of music; perfected himself on the organ and the harpsichord (another forerunner of the piano); learnt the violin and the oboe; and began to compose.

Presently his father died, and having to get his own living he went to Hamburg, at that time the most musical city in Germany, as a violinist at the opera. Here he drudged away for a while, always looking for a better and more congenial appointment. He had made friends with Johann Mattheson, a versatile musician then singing as a tenor at the opera. One day Mattheson and he started on what proved to be a very amusing errand to Lubeck. An organist’s post had been declared vacant, and the pair determined to try for it. Unfortunately, when they arrived at Lubeck, they found that there was an impossible stipulation: the successful candidate had to marry the daughter of the retiring organist! One look at the lady was enough. "She was not fair to see, and her years were thirty-four," while Handel was only eighteen. A speedy return to Hamburg was the result of the interview. Handel, it may be said at once, remained a bachelor to the end of his life. An Italian lady took his fancy as a young man, and he became engaged to her, but for some reason the match was broken off. Subsequently, he would have married an English lady of large fortune if she had not insisted that he must give up his profession. Perhaps it is an well that he remained unmated. He was an irascible person, and he might have done as Beethoven did with his cook, and thrown the soup in his wife’s face when something went wrong with his temper.

It was at Hamburg that Handel produced his first operas. But there is no occasion to talk of his operas, for they are all completely forgotten now, though airs from some of them are occasionally sung. [Editor's note: There has been quite a revival of Handel's operas over the past sixty years, and for many music lovers his operas now command as much enthusiasm as his oratorios and instrumental works.]

One incident of the Hamburg period must, however, be mentioned. Mattheson and Handel were both crack harpsichordists, and the harpsichord was an essential of the theatre orchestra in those days. At the opera Handel usually played the violin, while Mattheson played the harpsichord. But Mattheson had written an opera, Cleopatra, which was being staged at Hamburg. He was to sing in it himself, so Handel took his place at the harpsichord. But Mattheson, it appeared, sometimes did the double duty of playing on the stage as well as in the band; and on this occasion, after the death of Antony, he came down into the orchestra and demanded his accustomed seat there. Handel refused to rise, and a quarrel immediately ensued. Nothing less than a duel could be expected, and as soon as they were outside the theatre, the rivals drew their swords and began slashing at each other. Mattheson was the better fencer, and Handel was only saved to posterity by a big brass button on his coat, which broke the point of Mattheson’s sword.

Having put past some money, Handel now set off on a pilgrimage to Italy, the land of song." He arrived in Florence in 1707, and the remained in Italy, studying her native masters, composing operas and other works, for about three years. Artistically this visit was of great use to him, adding the grace of a refined, melodious style to the bold, majestic, but somewhat rugged strength of his work as a German of the somewhat severe type. When he left Italy in 1709, it was for Hanover. He had met the Elector of Hanover (the future George I) at Venice, and was invited to visit the Court. On more intimate acquaintance, the Elector conceived a strong liking for him, and made him his kapellmeister at a salary of £300 a year. He would allow Handel, he said, a year’s holiday whenever he asked for it. Handel asked for the holiday straight away, and in the winter of 1710 he saw London, his future home, for the first time. Little can he have thought then of the English capital as the scene of his greatest artistic triumphs, or of how the English people were to become the most ardent admirers of his genius. Very likely he looked upon this first visit as a mere pleasure-trip; yet the ultimate outcome was a series of masterpieces in oratorio without which Handel’s genius would never have been fully revealed, and in the absence of which his name would exist now only in the dull pages of musical history.

When Handel came to England, Purcell had been dead for fifteen years. Arne, the composer of "Rule, Britannia!" was only just born, and the few good men who were living and working were devoted almost entirely to minor forms like the anthem, the glee, and the madrigal. The time was therefore ripe for a genius like Handel. Opera was in such a low state that one work actually contained a part for a pig. Aaron Hill, the manager of the Queen’s Theatre in the Hay-market, got hold of Handel at once and asked him to write an opera for his establishment. Rinaldo was chosen for a subject, and Handel went to work with such eagerness that the poor librettist could not provide him with the words fast enough. When the thing was finished, the librettist made this plaintive appeal to the public: "I implore you to consider the speed I have had to work, and if my performance does not deserve your praises, at all events do not refuse it your compassion; for Herr Handel, the Orpheus of our age, has scarcely given me time to write while composing the music; and I have been stupefied to see an entire opera set to harmony with the highest degree of perfection in no more than a fortnight." We shall hear more of the phenomenal rapidity with which Handel composed. Rinaldo proved to be the finest opera that had ever been produced in England, and its success was quite brilliant. Walsh, the London music-seller, published it soon after, and made so much more out of it than Handel himself, that Handel observed to him: "You shall compose the next opera and I will publish it."

By this single work Handel had fully established his fame in London. But Handel himself was not established there just yet. He was drawing the Hanover salary, and he must return to his Hanover duties. In reality, he remained only sixteen months at Hanover, which he found excessively dull after London. He asked a fresh leave of absence and came back to us in 1712. That year he was out with a new opera at the Haymarket; wrote an Ode for Queen Anne’s Birthday in 1713; and was commissioned by her Majesty to compose a Te Deum and Jubilate to celebrate the Peace of Utrecht the same year. Anne was so delighted that she gave Handel a pension of £200 a year. Thus provided for, the composer stayed on in London, indifferent about his Hanover engagement. He only realised the awkwardness of his situation when Queen Anne died and the Elector came over from Hanover to be crowned as George I. He found himself persistently ignored at Court, the King declining to have any intercourse with him. A reconciliation was at length effected in this way: Baron Kielmansegge, a mutual friend of King and composer, having been invited to form one of the Court party in an excursion on the Thames, advised Handel to prepare music for the occasion. Handel took the hint and wrote what is known as his Water Music. It was performed kin a boat which followed the royal barge, Handel himself conducting. George was charmed with the effect, and inquiring as to the source of the music, was told all about it by Kielmansegge, who at the same time interceded on Handel’s behalf. George could hold out no longer. He took Handel metaphorically to his arms, and bestowed on him a further pension of £200 a year.

Handel made a visit to the Continent in 1716, but he was back in London in 1717, and in London he remained ever after. He secured an important appointment as musical director to the magnificent Duke of Chandos, who had built himself a splendid mansion at Cannons, in the suburbs. The Duke had a private chapel where a daily musical service was performed by "a choir of voices and instruments superior in excellence and numbers to that of any sovereign potentate in Europe." Handel’s duty was to train and lead the choir, to play the organ, and write music for the chapel. It was here that he wrote Esther, the first of those great oratorios (itself not of the great) upon which his fame rests. The Duke paid him £1000 for it, though it was performed at Cannons only three or four times. It was at Cannons, too, that Acis and Galatea was written. And then there was the famous pianoforte piece known as The Harmonious Blacksmith, one of a suite des pièces written for the harpsichord. There is a familiar but rather questionable story connecting it with one Powell, a blacksmith at Edgware in Handel’s time. The story is that one day, during a heavy shower, Handel took shelter in the blacksmith’s, and was so charmed with the musical sound of the blacksmith’s hammer on the anvil that he went home and wrote the air and its variations. But Handel’s biographers tell us that this particular piece was almost certainly written before Handel went to Cannons at all; and it is significant that the title of Harmonious Blacksmith was given to it, not by Handel himself, but by a music publisher in Bath whose father was a blacksmith and was fond of the tune. The anvil story is a pretty story, and one hesitates to spoil it, but it has really no solid foundation.

Handel’s service with the Duke of Chandos continued until 1721, but two years before that he had embarked on a gigantic operatic enterprise under the title of the Royal Academy of Music. For this undertaking he wrote a large number of operas, all long since buried in oblivion, but the finances of the enterprise proved so disastrous that he twice became bankrupt. In any readable account of Handel’s career, the main interest of this period is the way he managed his operatic vocal team. Singers are proverbially touchy and troublesome; none more so than operatic singers, who are a continual thorn in the flesh of the impresario. In Handel they found their match -- and more. His first encounter was with Francesca Cuzzoni, a distinguished Italian vocalist, who, from being the reigning star of her day, ended by making silk buttons for a living. Handel had written an air expressly for her, and she flatly refused to sing it. This was too much. It was a case of Greek meeting Greek. "I know, madam, that you are a very devil," roared Handel, "but I will let you see that I am Beelzebub, the prince of devils." And with that he seized her in his arms and was preparing to throw her out of her window, when she eagerly declared that she would sing.

Something of the same kind happened with Carestini, who declined to sing an air which Handel had written purposely to show off his voice. "You dog!" he cried, "don’t I know better as yourself what is good for you to sing? If you will not sing all the songs I give you, I will not pay you ein stiver." And as had happened with Cuzzoni, that particular song was the one in which Carestini produced his greatest effect.

Handel’s characteristic boldness was further illustrated by his engagement of Faustina, who was Cuzzoni’s deadly rival -- just as if Jenny Lind and Madame Patti had been pitted against each other. How Handel could have hoped to get the pair in into the same opera "cast" it is impossible to imagine. Horace Walpole tells a very amusing story of his mother’s attempts to keep peace between them. On Sundays, when Sir Robert Walpole was absent, she used to invite them both to dinner, and by discreet diplomacy obtained sufficient concession from both sides to ensure a pleasant meeting. One evening, however, when all the rank and fashion of London were present at one of her receptions, she found it so difficult to settle the question of precedence between the rivals that she had almost given up all hope of hearing them sing, when, by a lucky inspiration, she spirited Faustina away to a distant room under pretence of showing her some curious china. Cuzzoni, assuming that her opponent had gone, consented to sing; and when her songs were finished, Lady Walpole armed her away upon a similar pretext, while the company listened to Faustina!

Of course at the opera there could be no expedients of that kind, and Handel’s trick was to compose duets for the rivals, in which the voice parts were so nicely balanced and crossed each other so frequently, for the purpose of giving each singer the upper part by turns, that nobody could tell which was singing first and which second. Each of these stars received two thousand guineas per annum for her services. It is recorded that Cuzzoni tool a solemn oath never to sing for less than Faustina; and that Handel, wishing to get rid of her, offered her two thousand guineas and Faustina two thousand and one, whereupon she retired. As a matter of fact, Handel was never out of hot water with his singer. There is a story of one getting into a passion because the composer did not accompany him to his taste. "If you do not change your style of accompaniment," cried the angry vocalist, "I will jump upon the harpsichord and smash it." Handel looked up with a twinkle in his eye. "Let me know when you will do that," he replied, "and I will advertise it. I am sure more people will come to see you jump than will come to hear you sing. "

It is curious to reflect upon the consequences of Handel’s financial failures with opera. There was something in the form as well as in the subjects of oratorio music especially appropriate to Handel’s genius; yet such were the force of habit and the tyranny of fashion that if Handel had made money by his operas he would probably have gone on writing operas and nothing else to the end of his days. The Fates had happily ordered it otherwise. Julius Caesar won all his great victories after he was fifty. When the earlier of his great oratorios were written, Handel had reached the same epoch of life -- a time when genius is supposed to have lost some of its vigour, when both the mental and the physical powers are at least not in the ascendant. But Handel was a marvel.

He had written about forty operas, besides other works, when, in 1738, he turned finally to oratorio, and produced his Saul, composed in a little over two months. Saul is never heard now, but everybody knows its deeply impressive "Dead March," which occurs towards the end, just after the news of the death of Saul and Jonathan is brought to David. A year later came Israel in Egypt (written in fifteen days), which, after the Messiah and Judas Maccabaeus, is perhaps the most popular and the most frequently performed of all Handel’s oratorios. It was not a great success when first given in London in 1739, but that was due largely to the fact that the chorus-singing of Handel’s time was quite unequal to a work so gigantic in conception and execution. Choruses were comparatively small then, and were, besides, composed entirely of male voices.

Handel was naturally disappointed with the London reception of Israel; and so, when he had completed his Messiah, the greatest of all his oratorios, he carried the score to Dublin, and had the work performed there for the first time, in April 1742. The manuscript is still in existence, and from dates inscribed on it we gather that the entire work was begun and completed within twenty-three days! The Dublin audience had been called together by the following advertisement: "For the Relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the Support of Mercer’s Hospital, in Stephen’s Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inn’s Quay, on Monday, the 13th of April, will be performed at the Musick Hall at Fishamble Street, Mr. Handell’s new Grand Oratorio, called ‘The Messiah,’ in which the Gentlemen of the Choirs of both Cathedrals will assist, with some Concertos on the Organ by Mr. Handell." The advertisement further requested the ladies to come without their hoops and the gentlemen without their swords, which would "enable the stewards to seat seven hundred persons instead of six." Even so late as Haydn’s visits to London these impedimenta of the ladies gave serious concern to concert makers. Thus we are told that the royal Princesses wore hoops so wide that the Court attendants had to hold up the monstrosities in order to enable their wearers to pass through the doorways. And yet we hear continual talk about a proposed revival of the crinoline!

"Mr. Handell’s oratorio was received with extraordinary fervour by the Dublin people. A clergyman in the audience is stated to have so far forgotten himself as to exclaim at the close of one of Mrs. Cibber’s airs, "Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!" Another enthusiast dropped into poetry and delivered himself of the following couplet:
To harmony like his celestial power was given,
To exalt the soul from earth and make of hell a heaven.
A sum of £400 was realised by the performance, which, deducting only £20 for expenses, was divided among the three institutions named in the advertisement. It was the most triumphant event in Handel’s life. Already he has lost a fortune by Italian opera; the colossal Israel in Egypt had been received with cold indifference. But now all this was amply atoned for, and Handel stood approved as the greatest composer of the greatest oratorio that had ever been written. The Messiah was not performed in London until March 1743, when it was produced at Covent Garden. It has at first nothing like the success it achieved in Dublin, but gradually it got to be appreciated, and its position now is known to all lovers of music.

Back in London in 1742, Handel went on with his oratorio work, producing Samson, Judas Maccabaeus, Solomon, Theodora, and Jephtha. Although these are not well known. Certain portions of them are familiar enough: such, for instance, as "Honour and Arms" and "Let the bright Seraphim" from Samson; the beautiful soprano air "Angels, ever bright and fair," from Theodora; the equally beautiful "Waft her, angels, to the skies," from Jephtha; and "See, the conquering hero comes," from Judas Maccabaeus. Of this latter a story may be told. Soon after Handel had completed it, he played it to a friend and asked him how he liked it. "Not so well as some other things of yours," was the candid reply. "Nor I, either," said Handel, "but you will live to see it a greater favourite with the people than some of my finer things." The truth of which forecast has been abundantly proved.

It was in 1751 that Jephtha, the last of the long line of Handel oratorios (22 in all), was composed. By this time the master’s eyesight was seriously failing. Three painful operations ended in total blindness, and Handel, heartbroken over the misfortune, began to anticipate, if not to wish for, his end. His powers gradually weakened, and his thoughts continually reverted to death. He said he would like to die on Good Friday, that he might meet his Lord and Saviour on the day of His crucifixion. His desire was granted, for it was on the Good Friday of 1759 (April 13) that his spirit fled. He had conducted his Messiah seven days before, and the effort proved too much. His body was laid in the Abbey, where a monument may be seen, representing him in the act of writing "I know that my Redeemer liveth," one of the best-known solos in his great oratorio. In spite of his repeated losses, he died a rich man. He not only paid all his debts, but left £20,000, of which £1000 was bequeathed to the Royal Society of Musicians.

In person and character Handel was, like his music, large and powerful. He was somewhat unwieldy in his movements, but he had a countenance full of fire and dignity. He was imperious in the extreme, with a temper at times perfectly volcanic. In illustration of this, one typical anecdote may be chosen from many. Handel’s nerves were too irritable to stand the sound of tuning, and his players therefore tuned their instruments before he arrived. One evening, when the Prince of Wales was expected to be present, some wag, for a piece of fun, untuned them all. When the Prince arrived, Handel gave the signal to begin con spirito, but such was the horrible discord that the enraged conductor started up from his seat, and, having overturned a double-bass that stood in the way, seized a kettle-drum and threw it with such force at the leader if the violins that he lost his wig in the effort. Without waiting to replace it, he strode bareheaded to the front of the orchestra, breathing vengeance, but so choked with passion that he could hardly utter a word. In this ridiculous attitude he stood staring and stamping for some moments, amidst the general convulsion of laughter. Nor could he be prevailed upon to resume his seat until the Prince went in person and succeeded in appeasing his wrath.

Prince or plebeian, it was all the same to Handel. If anybody talked during a performance, he not only swore but "called names." For all this, he was a deeply religious man. When writing the Hallelujah Chorus he said: "I did see all heaven open before me and the great God Himself." He knew his Bible so well that for several of his oratorios he was his own librettist. At the coronation of George II., the Bishops chose the words for the anthem and sent them to Handel to set to music. "I have read my Bible very well, and shall choose for myself," was the reply he returned with the Bishops’ manuscript.

Many stories have been told of Handel’s almost unappeasable appetite, some of them certainly exaggerated. There is a caricature of his time representing him with the head of a hog, seated at the organ, while the instrument is garnished with hams, sausages, and other coarse foods. The most familiar anecdote is that which tells of him going to a tavern and ordering dinner for three. Having sat along time without any signs of the dinner, he called the landlord. The landlord said he was waiting till the company arrived. "Then bring the dinner prestissimo," replied Handel, "for I am the company." There is another story of a social evening at his house in Brook Street, Hanover Square. During supper, Handel frequently called out, "Oh! I have a thought," and retired to another room on pretence of writing it down. At last some suspicious guest had the curiosity to peep through the keyhole into the adjoining apartment. What he discovered was that Handel’s "thoughts" were being bestowed on a fresh hamper of Burgundy which had been sent him in a present by one of his admirers!

There is little need to sum up Handel as a composer. Sir Hubert Parry puts it very well when he says that his style has suited the English nation better than any other, owing to its directness and vigour and robustness; and also, no doubt, because the nation has always had a great love for choral music, of which he is one of the greatest masters. Beethoven’s judgment on him was perfectly sound. "Handel," said he, "is the unapproachable master of all masters. Go to him and learn to produce great effects with little means." Similarly, Haydn, in reference of Handel’s choral work, exclaimed, "He is the master of us all!" No composer has ever understood so well how to extract from a body of voices such grand results by means so simple and yet so skillfully conceived. In oratorio at least Handel is the people’s composer, and such he must remain so long as oratorio holds its place with the public.

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Middle Ages Music
Renaissance Music
Baroque Era Music
Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
Nationalist Era Music
Turn of Century Music

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