George Frederic Handel was born in Halle, a town in northern Germany where he received his early musical instruction from a local organist. In accordance with his father’s wishes, he prepared for a career in law. On his father’s death in 1703, Handel moved to Hamburg where his first two operas were successfully staged. In 1706 he accepted an invitation to Italy. The dramatic and Latin church music he composed during his three years in Florence, Rome, Naples, and Venice reveal the profound influence of his contacts with Italian musicians, particularly in his development of a richly expressive melodic style. In the words of one historian, “He arrived in Italy a gifted but crude composer with an uncertain command of form, and left it a polished and fully equipped artist.” In 1709 Handel accepted a position in Hanover, Germany, but with the provision that he be granted a year’s leave in London. He enjoyed considerable success with both the English nobility and public and in 1712 he returned to London, which became his home for the rest of his life.
Handel composed a phenomenal number of vocal and instrumental compositions, many of them intended for public performance for the rising English middle class. The pressures of continually producing new works led him to reuse his own material and to draw on that of others, generally without attribution. When asked about his borrowing from one particular composer, Handel is reported to have responded that the material in question was “much too good for him, he did not know what to do with it.”
Handel was particularly drawn to composing operas on Italian librettos, which during the Baroque period favored stories from Greek mythology and ancient history. The plots provided a loose framework for extravagant display of vocal virtuosity that, along with lavish scenic effects, drew audiences to hear their favorite singers. Numerous contemporary accounts describe audiences talking, eating, and playing cards during the recitatives, waiting for their favorite singer’s next aria. One of the bizarre manifestations of this superstar adulation was the castrati, male sopranos and altos whose change of voice had been surgically prevented during puberty. The practice, originally associated with the choir of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, continued into the 19th century and is said to have produced voices with the purity and range of a boy but the strength and endurance of a man. The career of one of the most famous castrati of Handel’s day is the subject of the 1995 film, Farinelli. Leading male roles were assigned to the castrati, for example, the role of Caesar in Handel’s Guilio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt). In contemporary revivals of Baroque operas, castrati roles are either sung by a woman or by a countertenor (a man with an alto range), or the music is transposed down to a normal male range.
Handel composed over 40 operas, most during his years as the musical director of London opera companies. In addition to providing new operas each season, either by himself or other composers, Handel made yearly trips to the continent to engage the sensational singers who the public would pay to hear. During intermission, audiences were treated to Handel performing his organ concertos.
Another important category of Handel’s output is the oratorio, whose musical structure is similar to that of opera, but is based on a religious subject and performed without costumes, scenery, and acting. The Old Testament furnished the material for most of Handel’s 25 oratorios — among them Saul, Israel in Egypt, Samson, Joshua, and Solomon — which were presented in public concert halls during Lent, when operas and other theatrical entertainments were banned from the stage. The texts of the oratorios are in English, which probably contributed to their enormous popularity with the English public. His instrumental works include concertos, the Water Music performed for King George I by musicians on a barge in the Thames, and Music for the Royal Fireworks for a fireworks display.