Born in Halle in central Germany, George Frideric Handel was lured from his intended career in law by music, and had his first opera produced in Hamburg before he was 20.
The following year he took himself to the fount of all things operatic, Italy, where a four year stay added a new sophistication and finish to his already notable abilities. Many of his most brilliant vocal works date from this time, including the choral psalm-setting Dixit Dominus, the opera Agrippina and the oratorio La resurrezione.
Handel emerged from his Italian experience looking for a career in opera, and after a brief period in Hanover was soon in London, scoring a significant success in 1711 with the spectacular Rinaldo. Over the next 30 years he was to compose around 40 Italian operas for the London stage, the climaxes of his achievement coming in 1724–5 with Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano and Rodelinda, and in 1735, the year of Ariodante and Alcina.
At the same time he gained a sure foothold with the British establishment, cultivating wealthy patrons and winning prestigious royal commissions, including the four anthems which he composed for the coronation of George II in 1727. That year he also became a British citizen.
During the 1730s English interest in Italian opera waned, and Handel was forced to look elsewhere for a living. His solution, oratorio in English, has fixed his position on the British musical landscape ever since. His first English oratorio, Esther of 1732, was an adaptation of an earlier stage work, but by the end of the decade a number of striking original works had followed, including Saul and Israel in Egypt. For a while he composed oratorios alongside operas, but by the early 1740s oratorio had won the day, buoyed by the successes of Messiah in Dublin in 1742 and Samson in London the following year. The ensuing decade saw a stream of notable oratorios, culminating in 1751 in his last masterpiece, Jephtha.
Handel’s greatness as a composer has been acknowledged from his time to ours, even if perceptions of exactly why have changed. During the 19th century and much of the 20th he was seen as the great religious artist, noble master in the oratorios of vast choral sound and intimate pious sentiment, but in recent decades he has come to be appreciated for the more worldly slant of his operas, whose penetrating psychological insight and broad human compassion have won him a position in the front rank of musical dramatists. What has never been in dispute, however, is his easy skill as a composer, his healthy cosmopolitanism, and the sheer tunefulness and charm of his music.
Profile © Lindsay Kemp