portrait of georg friedrich handel

Georg Friedrich Händel: life and works

The composer between travels and new works

Händel was a composer and musician of the Baroque period who, unlike Bach, changed many residences and led a rather eventful life. There is no real justification for this, but it is probably due to an intolerance of stable jobs (such as Kantor or Kapellmeister) together with a strong drive towards an international career at ever higher levels.

From Halle to Amburgo

Georg Friedrich Händel was born in Halle, Saxony in 1685 - the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach - and soon began his musical studies under Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow (1663-1712). Together with Zachow, he became acquainted not only with the counterpoint of the Germanic tradition, but also with the new Italian style of which he was inevitably influenced.

At the age of eighteen, after leaving his law studies at the university, which had only been started at the behest of his father, Georg Friedrich moved to the wealthy and lively city of Hamburg where he initially worked in the opera house orchestra as a violinist and later as a harpsichordist and "conductor of performances".
In addition to composing the Johannes Passion, Händel saw the first performance of his opera, Almira, in this city in 1705. A particular feature of this opera is the alternation of language between recitatives and arias, in fact the arias are in Italian and the recitatives in German.

💡 Did you know? Händel, like Bach, went to Buxtehude attracted by the possibility of succeeding the important organist, but this step implied marriage to the predecessor's daughter who, no longer young, was rejected by all.

The journey to Italy

Three years after his arrival in Hamburg, Händel set off for Italy in 1706 to discover the new music. His first stop was in Florence (where his first Italian opera "Rodrigo" was performed), then Rome (where he enjoyed the protection of cardinals and the prince), Naples, Venice and Rome again. His contacts with Italian musicians were numerous and very stimulating: he met Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti, Corelli, Vivaldi and Albinoni.
He performed one of his operas near Venice, at the theatre of S. Giovanni Grisostomo in 1709: "Agrippina" to a libretto by the theatre owner Vincenzo Grimani.

It may seem strange that despite being in the homeland of opera, Händel only devoted himself to it twice, but this was probably because he spent most of his time in Rome where such music was forbidden by papal decree. In fact, he concentrated on composing the most popular music in the city, such as chamber cantata and oratorio.

In 1710, having absorbed as much of the typically Italian vocal and instrumental style as possible, he went to Hannover where he accepted the post of Kapellmeister at the court, but oriented towards England - where opera had not yet taken root - he moved there permanently.

The Royal Academy of Music in London

Rinaldo (1711) was the first opera to be performed in London and was so successful that it marked the beginning of the composer's career. At the same time, he managed to establish himself at court, received commissions for celebratory compositions and became master of the princesses. In 1723 he was appointed composer of music for the Royal Chapel and three years later he officially became a British citizen.

In 1719 Händel was appointed music director of an academy sponsored by the king and made up of members of the nobility: the so-called Royal Academy of Music. The aim of this academy was to stage Italian operas at the King's Theatre after great competitions. Here the composer performed his best works, such as Julius Caesar (1724) and Otto (1723).

But despite the efforts of its members, the Royal Academy failed: audiences did not renew their subscriptions and there was no way to get the English to accept Italian opera. There were many reasons for this: the characters and stories were alien to English culture; because of the language, they could not understand the libretto; the voices of the castrati were considered immoral and even annoying; and the opera, being Italian, was immediately associated with Catholicism.
The final straw was the dazzling success of Johann Christoph Pepusch's The Beggar's Opera, with a text by John Gay. A witty comedy in English with popular, catchy songs was what London audiences appreciated most.

Händel's comeback and the Oratorioo

However, the composer did not give up and with the wealth he had accumulated (also by investing in the stock market) he set up his own business as an impresario. So, after travelling to Italy to bring in the best singers, he organised new opera seasons at the King's Theatre. Three more of his operas were born within a year of each other: Poro (1731), Ezio and Orlando. However, even this wave had the same difficulties as the first, but he still managed to hold his own thanks to the King's protection until the oratorio allowed him to finally disqualify his opponents.

Händel's oratorios bring together all the experiences he assimilated with Italian opera, the English anthem (a vocal composition with English texts taken from the liturgy to celebrate the coronation of the King of England), the German contrapuntal tradition, the French tragédie lyrique with the protagonist choir and the oratorio of Cardinal Pamphilj's time.

Thanks to oratorios such as Messiah (1741) and Belshazzar (1745) Händel managed to be considered the greatest living English composer.

signatur of the composer George Frideric Handel
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