English language" by music historian Stanley Sadie, Handel's Messiah continues to receive lavish and popular praise (Barber, 1994, p. 2). The English oratorio remains one of the most recognizable works of music, and earned its composer considerable fame and fortune during his lifetime. Born on the 23rd of February of 1685, Georg Friederich Handel was the son of German barber-doctor Georg, and his second wife, Dorothea. The Handel family resided in Halle, a small Saxony town on a tributary of the Elbe River. However, his musical prowess and sense of purpose drove the composer to travel: in addition to many parts of Germany, Handel also lived in Italy, Ireland, and England. All the places in which he lived offered the composer inspiration for his music. Starting with a humble career as a church organist, Handel eventually tackled the awesome tasks of writing operas, anthems, psalms, arias, cantatas, and his signature English oratorios, of which Messiah is one. In spite of a few, mostly financial, ups and downs in his career, Handel enjoyed a healthy following and most of his works were met with popular and critical acclaim. He made London his most permanent home, and eventually became a naturalized Englishman. Thereafter, he Anglicized the spelling of his name from Georg Friederich to George Frideric. The musician died in London in 1759. Testimony to the respect he earned, Handel is interred in Westminster Abbey.
The personal life of George Frideric Handel seems not to be as colorful as his musical career. The man never married, and there are few stories of his dalliances with either women or men. He was known to be a corpulent man, especially during the later years of his life, and enjoyed drinking. However, Handel did not have a reputation for aggression, either. In general it seems his life was consumed by a passion for music and the dramatic arts. He was, however, generous with the money he earned from his successes and gave much of it away to charities.
Handel's childhood was happy, in spite of his father's strict attitude regarding his son's future. Handel's father, a noted doctor in the town of Halle, strongly encouraged his son to practice law; he undoubtedly considered it a more worthy profession than dallying with music. In fact, the elder Georg Handel despised music. Young Georg would sneak into the attic to play the clavichord, a portable keyboard similar to the harpsichord. His mother, Dorothea, luckily encouraged her son to pursue his hobby. By the time he was nine years old, the young boy was already recognized as a prodigy. One day in church, the Duke heard him playing the church organ and immediately told his father to give the boy lessons. His father relented under the obvious pressure, and young Handel began studying with a respected composer and performer by the name of Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow. Zachow's influence on young Handel was profound: he taught the boy musical theory in addition to German and Italian styles of music and opera. Zachow (also spelled Zachau) taught Handel several instruments, including the organ, harpsichord, and the violin. Not long after his lessons began, the young boy would substitute for Zachow on the church organ during services. Moreover, by the age of twelve, Handel already composed music.
Already into his sixties when Handel was born, Georg senior passed away in 1697. To honor his father, Handel enrolled in the University of Halle in order to study law. His efforts were half-hearted and he never completed his academics; music was his sole interest and he pursued it with gusto. In 1702, Handel, who was baptized a Lutheran, was appointed as organist in a Calvinist church. He earned salary plus room and board, and thus launched the musician's career.
In spring of 1703, Handel left the small town of Halle for the big city: Hamburg. Probably attracted to the plentiful opportunities for aspiring musicians there, Handel soon met two good friends and fellow musicians: Georg Philipp Telemann, and Johann Mattheson. Ironically, although Handel was born in the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach, in a town only fifty miles away, the two masters never crossed paths. In any case, Handel and Mattheson hit it off and the two were soon performing on stage together. A notable incident occurred during a performance of Mattheson's opera Cleopatra; a skirmish that nearly destroyed their friendship and almost took Handel's life. Mattheson composed Cleopatra, and also played in the orchestra, and performed the role of Anthony. While he played Anthony, Georg Handel substituted for him in the pit. Because Anthony dies part of the way through the opera, Mattheson preferred to play music instead of sit on the sidelines for the remainder of the performance. One December night in 1704, Handel flat-out refused to budge from his spot in the orchestra. Mattheson grew furious and after a shouting match, challenged his friend to a duel. Handel didn't have a chance; he was not a trained fighter. Mattheson almost had him: drew his sword, and struck. However, his blade hit a strong brass button on Handel's coat, saving his life! The two men quickly made up and their friendship didn't suffer any more than Handel's coat did.
After spending a few years in Hamburg, Handel decided to try his luck in lively Italy. In 1706 he moved there, first spending time in Florence and Venice before moving on to Rome. While in Italy, Handel learned how to properly conduct an orchestra and by 1707 produced a series of cantatas set to Italian texts. During his stay in Italy, Handel composed nearly 100 cantatas, showing his skill and mastery of that genre, as well as his skill in "capturing a range of different moods," (Keates, 1985, p. 35). He also wrote church anthems and love duets in Italian; the composer was multilingual. Handel was exposed to more than just opera in Italy; folk music made its way into his brain has he heard the haunting melodies of the pifferari, Italian shepherds who played tunes on small bagpipes. Particular notes of the pifferari can be heard in certain parts of Messiah (Barber, 1994, p. 25).
In 1711, Handel moved back to Germany, where he became Kapellmeister, or court composer for Georg Ludwig, the Elector of Hanover. Georg Ludwig would go on to become King George I of England, and was therefore Handel's boss in both countries. In between short stints as Kapellmeister, Georg visited England, where he composed operas. England obviously inspired Handel, for he moved there for good in 1712. In 1714, his former patron, the Elector of Hanover, became King of England; Handel had a ready-made post playing for nobility.
Unfortunately for the opera composer, the particular social climate in London at the time was not favorable to that continental art form. Partly because of negative sentiment toward the Catholic Church, Italian opera in particular fell out of favor among the "beau monde," or the emerging middle classes of England. Although Handel was known as the "leading composer in London's operatic world," the musician was forced to alter his art form (Burrows, 1997, p. 45). Thus Handel gave birth to the English oratorio, an outlet that led to his extraordinary fame and creative immortality.
Heavily influenced by theater, Handel experimented with oratorios in large part because operas were no longer proving lucrative for him. They were expensive to produce, difficult to compose, and the British public was no longer interested in traditional opera. In fact, opera became increasingly more of a vehicle for political, rather than artistic expression (Burrows, 1997, p. 53). Increasingly, the public favored operas sung in English. These so-called "ballad-operas" stole box-office dollars from Handel. In 1728, a ballad-opera called The Beggar's Opera earned amazing public accolades, and forced Handel to seek work elsewhere.
Astute enough to notice trends in his profession, Handel experimented with composing oratorios in the English language. Oratorios were more accessible to audiences for other reasons, as they retain the dramatic appeal of opera without as much of a spectacle of costumes and sets. Handel began his exploration of the English oratorio first with a series based on Old Testament stories: Esther, Deborah, and Saul and Israel in Egypt.
In 1741, William Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire, invited Handel to Ireland. Because The Beggar's Opera still stole ticket sales from Handel's productions, the move was a welcome one. The musician brought with him several oratorios he had recently composed in London, including the soon-to-be produced Messiah.
One of only two English oratorios based on New Testament themes (the other of which is Handel's own Theodora), Handel's Messiah would become incredibly controversial back in London. However, in Dublin, the production was well-received. The Messiah was first performed at Neal's Music Hall on Fishamble Street on April 13, 1742. Even before Messiah reached general audiences, the oratorio earned rave reviews from critics who had witnessed rehearsals. So laudatory was the publicity by the time the performance hit the main stage that…