Handel: A life of Musical Devotion
A great gift to music entered into the world on 23 February 1685 in Halle, Germany. A life of great musical interest; one filled with an unbelievable talent that would become a beacon to many throughout the European continent and span centuries past its lifetime. It is a life that would become centered around a great mystery of how the musical talent would blossom into a recognized and celebrated gift; a life that would alter the musical landscape and the spiritual worship realm in a short 24 days, and a life that would become so influential that it would dictate musical compositions for many years afterwards.
A musical life that in the beginning would find itself struggling to exist; a life that will be forever known in George Frideric Handel. It is through Handel that we credit many great musical accomplishments; accomplishments in the mixture of homophonic and polyphonic textures, through the creation of his own unique works through the process of combining German, Italian, French, and English musical traditions into his highly successful English Oratorios. And most importantly through the lasting effects of Handel’s single greatest gift to the world, and the world of music: The Messiah. But how does the work of this single musician leave such a strong impression on the music that we have today? What could possibly make the music of Handel something that would be hailed as electric, memorable, unique, and even cutting edge? And most importantly how could one person alter the musical idiom through a single twenty-four day creation of a setting of Christ’s life? Through these questions I will explore Handel’s impact on music in a way that shed’s light onto the significance of Handel as a musician, a teacher, and inventor and as a religious preserver. It is with Handel that we credit a great deal of musical advancement.
Adversity in Handel’s life was something that he encountered early on in life. At an early age Handel found himself faced with a father that did not support a career in music, in fact his father was a person that greatly hated music; noting that it was a pastime that served the sole purpose of casting a light on the weakness of character found within a person. It was his father that wished he would strive to obtain a career as a lawyer, a position that would come with a great deal of security in position and financial stability. This was something that Handel himself would have to come to terms with, because he himself was born with “signs of a fierce ambition, born of an awareness of his superiority as a musician, and with a determination to maintain his independence.” This determination to advance his musical skill became a task that took a great deal of hard work and convincing; though it was Handel’s mother that provided access to a clavichord hidden in the family’s attic. The hours spent hiding from his father in the attic, covering the strings of the clavichord with cloth to dampen the sound, allowed young George the time to practice his musical development and eventually the knowledge of how to play both the clavichord and the organ. This early study is most likely what saved the musical career for Handel, because it was during the time stuck in the attic that a young Duke passing by heard young George playing in the attic and was so moved by what he heard, that he stopped to listen. After hearing young George play the organ, the Duke pleaded with George’s father to allow him to travel to Berlin and begin to take music lessons. The young Handel began taking lessons at the age of eight, and was easily able to conquer learning the violin, composition and theory techniques, harpsichord, and reinforce the organ playing skills. By the age of 11, there seemed little that any music teacher could teach George; it was at this point that George’s father began angry and again expressed his desire for George to cease playing in the music, and to return home and do as he wished. Handel at the request of his father did in fact return home, only to arrive at his father’s deathbed. This was a dark period of struggle for the young Handel, compelled to honor his father’s wishes, George decided that it was best to keep to his studies in law; though during this same time he continued to also sharpen the musical skills that he knew he possessed. It was during this time that Handel began to write cantatas for the various churches that he was serving in as an organist. It was the service in music that called out to Handel, and by the time he reached the age of eighteen, Handel had realized that it was in fact his destiny to become a great musician noting that he was destined to improve his musical abilities and his knowledge of music.
Leaving his birth city of Halle lead him on a series of travels that would shape the musical aspect of the outlook that Handel would eventually have on music. The various travels and cities that Handel was to visit would begin to influence every aspect of music that Handel would come to know and appreciate, and it was his first destination in Hamburg that would lead Handel on the path of musical greatness. It was during his time in Hamburg that Handel was really introduced to opera, and it took no time before Handel was given a position in the orchestra on second violin. The time at the Opera house playing violin was a period that would bring the birth of what people would come to see as a man that was described as a “large and very portly man”, one that was full of a short temper and one that had a general appearance about him that was “somewhat heavy and sour.” The personality of Handel would be something that many really would see as a double edged sword, in one aspect he was a intelligent man that had a good sense of humor, one that show a remarkable sense of integrity, reliability, and absolute honesty in all aspects of his life; but at the same time Handel was a person that possessed a short fuse, and hot temper. He was a man that was short tempered and vocal about is opinions of life in general, and especially music. This personality would be a defining part of Handel’s musical career, as it was shortly after he started working in Hamburg at the Opera house, that George was given the opportunity to display his tremendous talent at the harpsichord; though it was also this talent that caused young George (now approximately age 22) to vocally disagree with composer Johann Mattheson on a composition Mattheson had written. It was this short fuse of Handel’s that nearly ended his career, and life; though this spunk Handel exhibited also gave him the opportunity to catch the eye of a young prince, Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici, which would become impressed with the music Handel was performing. This lead to Handel being asked to leave his home, now Hamburg, and make the journey to Italy where he would again be placed in a situation of being surrounded by new composers and styles of music.
The move to Italy was an exciting time for Handel, as Handel was at a point of where his primary motivation for traveling to new areas was that of gaining experience, and in the case of the opportunity to visit Italy, the objective was to learn as much as he could from the composers of Italy, and their wonderful operas. It was in Italy that Handel made significant strides in his musical career and overall development. For when Handel made it to Italy he was exposed to the world’s greatest forms of music consisting of compositions of the likes of Opera, Cantatas, oratorios, chamber cantatas, concertos, and sonatas. This was a period that Handel began the task of refining his knowledge and really defining the compositional talents he had been using to this point.
Handel was afforded the luxury of being able to set no limit on the boundaries of which his music would take because of the generous gift of being surrounded by people that were able to support Handel and his daily needs. As a member of Prince Francesco Ruspoli court, Handel was given the freedom to explore compositional aspects and dig into the music that so highly intrigued him, though it wasn’t until 1710 that Handel’s musical world would come to full realization, and would establish Handel as one of the greatest musicians of all times. The year 1710 came with Handel’s move back to Germany where he would fall into the role once held by Steffani in Hanover as Kapellmeister to the Elector, George Louis, who eventually become King George I of England. Once in Hanover Handel was quickly convinced to travel to England with Prince George to scout out the music scene in the country as Prince George’s mother Sophia was married to the English Elector, meaning that Prince George would eventually assume the throne of England (which happened in 1714). During the early visits to London, the young Handel became highly intrigued in London’s newest opera house, the Queen’s Theater, and it was here that Handel decided that he would produce an opera that was Italian in nature and composed specifically for London. The opera Rinaldo was thus first produced in 1711, and consisted of slightly over a dozen performances, all of which were considered a huge success; thus paving the way for Handel’s move to England, and what was to become the foundation for the overall success of Handel.
The move to England was a positive move for Handel overall, leading to his ultimate desire to become a British citizen. Once he was finally settled into his life in England, Handel was offered and accepted the role of music director for the Royal Academy of Music when it opened in 1720. The academy was the center for operatic studies for many years after opening; credited greatly to the presence of Handel himself and his ability to attract the best singers to perform the works he had written himself. Though as with any worthy project dealing with the biggest and brightest stars, the academy began to see a decline in stature and operation; attributed to the high demands the singers were placing on the academy both performance wise and financially. This was only fueled by the internal conflicts among performers, patrons, and rival composers. This was a time when Handel’s short fuse and hot temper did not help, as Handel himself was part of many of the quarrels that took place, though he was clever enough to lighten the situation and make the tensions eventually come to an end through humor and quick wit. This did not help the academy in the long run as it eventually was forced to close its doors, but at the same time it only freed Handel to focus on his career, and eventually give him the time to prepare for the needed shift in musical direction as the opera itself had reached a point to where it was no longer a viable musical performance option in England.
The shift from opera was one that Handel himself was easily able to undertake, for the ambition and determination to succeed in the music realm allowed Handel to develop an internal motivator that he looked to for resolve to win fame and fortune and to “make money; honestly if you can, but-make money.” This was something that would serve Handel himself well because it is Handel’s personality and desire to serve the music and the people that gave him the title of “musician of the people.” This afforded Handel the ability to see a great deal of success with his music and career while in England going through the period of shifting from the Operatic style to that of composing English Oratorios. This also only aided Handel in popularity because may people saw Handel’s music as “property of the people, familiar, understood, and loved” and this was related to many English subjects as to the “work of not other great master the wide world over.”
The overall history of Handel is able to show that the experience and cultural exposure of his various travels, gave Handel himself a wide range and palette to work from. It is through the exposure to these cultures and musical styles, compositions, composers, patron, and musician employers that Handel was given the tools needed to succeed in the music world, but the experiences themselves did not create a unique character that was what was admired in Handel. It was the personal traits that Handel possessed that afforded him the opportunity to be loved by many and respected by all. The personality of Handel was a unique blend of every imaginable aspect one could possibly think of, he had a drive; a determination to succeed, the ability to make people laugh, a sense of quick wittedness, a familiarity aspect, devotion to religion, honesty, integrity, and an incredible love of music. But most importantly Handel never let anything stand in his way of doing what he loved: serving the people, the music, and his religion. An example comes in the form of the inability of anything to stand in the way of Handel’s success. In 1737 Handel suffered a stroke that for the most part threatened to end everything. The stroke had left Handel’s right arm paralyzed and thus prevented him from being able to perform and also had an affect on his mind. It was during this time that Handel fought to remain active, and did through the writing of Italian operas though the public no longer favored them. Handel pushed through all obstacles that he encountered including eventual blindness that took a toll on his compositions and eventually left Handel performing his music for organ from memory. It was ironic that Handel had a determination to succeed, because it was this determination that left him a person that was totally withdrawal from life and society, though loved by all. He did spend most of his time and life locked away from society and the daily life in order to focus on his music and thus never married nor had any children. He was a man that truly devoted his life to the people, his music, and changing the world of music.
The Influence Handel had on music was immense, the style and techniques that he was able to incorporate into the daily musical vocabulary was a blending of the major European styles that Handel had experienced in his travels from Halle to Hanover, to Hamburg, Italy and England. Simply put, Handel took the best of all the styles and created one Handelian style that would become a standard for the musical world, allowing him to “mature as a composer in England, the country then most hospitable to foreign composers.” Handel had a solid foundation from the early Lutheran church music that he was around growing up, this attention to the harmonic structure and counterpoint of the music he was able to adapt a rich lush style in the compositions that he wrote from the sacred cantatas through the opera, and eventually into the English Oratorios. One defining feature of the style that Handel possessed is that he was ever aware of the changing trends of the time, though his style of writing stayed pretty much the same and didn’t need much altering for he has such a gift for writing melodies that one would never realize that many times a harmony was not present under the melodic line. The melodies were bold and self-sustaining and thus needed no support from a harmonic progression to carry it through. A strong feature of Handel’s compositional style was the process of “borrowing” materials. It is clear and evident that Handel borrowed musical ideas from others during his life as a way to create a new melting pot of musical ideas. But Handel also employed the technique of borrowing musical material, or re-use of musical material, from his own work; however he did like to use material from other composers better. He did this in a way that varied, one method was simply to take entire pieces, or movements, from one work and reuse them in another, or to borrow material from a composer and then rework it to create an essentially new compositions, as seen in the Choruses from Messiah and Belshazzar’s feast; using the Italian duet “for unto us a child is born.” The use of the borrowing technique is one that is unique to Handel, because it was in the 1930’s that it seems as if the practice ceases, though this could be because Handel found the need to shift composition styles, and thus opened himself to a wide range of materials to now pull from, thus making the reference of music harder to pin point. But the fact remains that the “borrowing does not affect his status as a composer” because Handel himself never based his career on any single piece of work that utilized music that was credited to the creation of another person. Thus it is not known if any single composer influenced Handel himself, however it was obvious that Handel left an obvious influence on composer that appeared during his time and certainly after his death in 1759.