George Frideric Handel - Composer Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

George Frideric Handel - Composer

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Handel is the greatest composer who ever lived.
- Ludwig van Beethoven

George Frideric Handel was one of the most important composers of the Baroque era - his work includes music of all genres, from oratorios and operas to orchestral and chamber music. Later generations, including many famous composers, have fully acknowledged his great musical talent and influence on the development of Western music.


Georg Friedrich Händel (his original name) was born in 1685 in Halle, Germany. Although there were no musicians in his family, at an early age he was already greatly interested in music. His father would have preferred him to study law, but eventually allowed him to start musical studies with an organist of the local church in Halle.

Handel proved to be an extremely talented organist, and at the age of 17 he got a job as an organist in Halle. Soon after getting the job, however, he travelled to Hamburg and worked there as a teacher and a violinist in the opera orchestra. In Hamburg at the age of 20 he composed his first large-scale work - the opera Almira - which was a great success.

After spending a few years in Hamburg, Handel moved to Italy in 1706, where the musical style he admired and used when composing was thriving. Most of his time in Italy he spent in Rome, where it's probable that he met the greatest Italian composers of that time. He mainly composed operas and spent his time developing his operatic style.

In 1710 Handel got the post of Music Director for the Elector of Hannover. In this job he also had a chance to travel, which he did, eventually ending up in London where his opera Rinaldo was performed; he returned some time later for good, becoming an English subject in 1727. In England Handel continued writing operas in his Italian style, but their success started fading when the new ballad operas started getting more popular.

The production of unsuccessful operas soon became too expensive, so Handel gave it up and started composing oratorios, which were much cheaper to produce. His oratorios were warmly welcomed and they soon became even more successful than his operas ever were. The most famous of these - and undoubtedly most famous of all of his work - is Messiah. Handel continued writing oratorios for years, but eventually his health got so bad he practically had to stop composing, though he continued to conduct and play. Handel's career ended in 1759 when he collapsed during a performance of Messiah. He died a few days later in his home.

Handel's Music

Although Handel was born in the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach and they're often compared with each other, there aren't many similarities between either their music or their lifestyles. Where Bach is often called the 'master of polyphony1', Handel used a more homophonic style, although he also mastered polyphony. Handel's style is much lighter than Bach's and he composed for the crowds who adored him.

A common misconception is that Handel's music is mainly religious; although he is most known for his oratorios, one shouldn't forget the rest of his wide work.

Most Important Works

  • Over 40 operas, including Almira (1705), Rinaldo (1711), Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar) (1724) and Orlando (1733).

  • Oratorios, including Esther (1718), Messiah (1742) and Jephta (1752).

  • Orchestral music, including Water Music (1717) and Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749).

  • Several concerti grossi.

1Polyphony and homophony are two different ways of composing arrangements. As an example, consider a melody that is the top part of a four-part arrangement. There are two ways of adding the remaining three parts.

Homophony is where the composer looks at the music in vertical slices, taking each note of the melody, and constructing a chord underneath it with the other three parts. Each chord has to observe the musical 'rules', so that the result sounds pleasant.

In polyphony, the composer works horizontally; each of the four parts has a life in itself, rather like four melodies coexisting in the same space. Again, the result must sound musical, so some conventions are observed, but there is a greater degree of compositional freedom; for example, dissonance can be introduced.

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