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Sunday, September 23, 2012

George Frederick Handel

George Frederick Handel, 1726-28,
Balthasar Denner
Most great artists have grown up in homes where one or both parents nurtured their talents, often at great personal sacrifice of their own dreams and well being. In the small German town of Halle in 1685 a child was born to a surgeon and his wife. Early on, the boy showed interest and talent in music, but his father, wishing to insure a secure future for his son, forbid the presence of musical instruments within his house. He wished for his son George a career as a lawyer instead. And George might well have become a lawyer except for a fortuitous business trip on which his father took him along to visit the court of Duke Johann Adolf at Weisenfels. Somewhat bored, young George wandered through the palace until he came to the chapel and its organ where he sat down and began to improvise. The wonderful sounds the boy of twelve was making caught the ear of the Duke, who was so impressed he implored the gifted boy's father to let him study music. Back in Halle, the young man trained with his hometown cathedral organist, Zachau, who taught him to be a composer and performer on several keyboard instruments as well as the violin and oboe.

Handel's birthplace, 1685, Halle, Germany.
George Frederick Handel soon outgrew Zachau and a succession of other instructors in Hamburg and elsewhere in Germany. He then moved on to Italy where he mastered the art of composing operas. He spent several years performing and travelling from one Italian court to another as his reputation grew to the point that in 1710, at the age of 25, he was invited back to Germany by Prince George Ludwig of Hanover who offered him the position of court musician. The only drawback was it meant composing music to the demands of others, a restriction the young composer quickly grew to hate. With the knowledge that Italian opera had become fashionable in London, Handel petitioned the prince for a temporary leave of absence to travel to England. The prince graciously granted him permission to go for a "reasonable time." That "reasonable time" eventually became fifty years.

Music sheet, Rinaldo, 1711,
Handel's first opera.

Handel's first opera, Rinaldo came only a few months after he hit London. For 15 straight nights it performed to sold-out crowds. Over the next few years, Handel turned out opera after opera, becoming the most popular composer in England. After three years, Queen Anne gave him an annual stipend of 200 pounds. However, when the queen died in 1714, the last of the Stuart royal line, she was succeeded by Prince George Ludwig, the first of the Hanover kings and the very same Prince George Ludwig that had granted Handel a "short" leave of absence. However what might have been a career breaker, or at least a source of embarrassment, ended in his stipend being doubled by his forgiving friend - the new king. The next ten years were the pinnacle of Handel's popularity on the London stage. But, during the next ten years, tastes changed, music changed, and the great composer's Baroque style music became dated. In 1728, he was forced into bankruptcy and found himself resorting to concert performances to survive. In 1737, when one of his final operas was a dismal failure, he suffered a stroke and lost the use of his right arm. Partly to escape creditors as well as to seek treatment, Handel journeyed to Achen, Germany to a famous health spa run by an order of nuns for treatment in their hot, bubbling waters. In 1741, in something approaching a miracle, Handel made a complete recovery. He returned to England and what he hoped would be a fresh start in the opera business, only to have his next several works also fail on the stage. Then, at this nadir in his life, he received a bulky package from the poet Charles Jennens - a play manuscript and a request that Handel compose a musical accompaniment.

The Messiah, autographed score, 1741, George Frederick Handel
Handel looked over the work and was disappointed to find it far from original, mostly a skillful weaving of biblical texts with a stirring narrative of Christ's birth, death, and resurrection. Jennens called it, Messiah. Though there was no mention of compensation, Handel began to write in the early hours of August 22, 1741. Working almost day and night, twenty-four days later the enormous score was complete. Handel went to bed and slept 17 hours. His music copyist, fearing another stroke, or that he'd died, called a doctor. He needn't have bothered; Handel lived for another 17 years. Messiah, at Handel's insistence, was first performed in Dublin, Ireland during the Christmas season the following year. Repeatedly, the crowd of concert-goers was so great, women were asked to forgo their hoop skirts and men were encouraged to leave their swords at home so that a greater number could be packed into the concert hall. More than 400 pounds were raised for charity, going to hospitals and infirmaries and toward the release of 142 inmates from debtors' prison - a cause no doubt dear to the heart of the debt-ridden composer.

Handel caricature, Joseph Goupy, 1754
In 1743, expecting the same rousing success, Handel moved the production to London where, to his shock and despair, he found the clergy organizing protests of his work and preaching sermons against the Messiah on the grounds that it was a sacrilege for Christian truths to be mouthed by actors on a theatre stage (actors were still considered the dregs of society at the time). The London performance was a dismal failure (right); Handel was ruthlessly ridiculed. And so it was for the next several years as Handel nonetheless worked tirelessly to promote what he considered his greatest work. It wasn't until 1750 that the work gained critical acceptance. At a performance for England's King George II, the monarch suddenly rose to his feet in a spontaneous emotional outburst of joy as the trumpets blasted out the great "Hallelujah" chorus. A ripple of surprise and dismay swept over the audience as they too joined the king on their feet.  (To see why, click here: ) To this day, when the stirring "Hallelujah" chorus is heard audiences traditionally stand, out of respect for the composer and the Messiah. Handel was blind during the last seven years of his life yet continued to produce and conduct his musical masterpiece until his death on Good Friday, April 13, 1759.

Handel's Messiah at Carnegie Hall, New York

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