top of page

George Frideric Handel

1685 - 1759

George Frideric (or Frederick) Handel (23 February 1685 – 14 April 1759) was a German, later British baroque composer who spent the bulk of his career in London, becoming well known for his operasoratoriosanthems, and organ concertos. Handel received important training in Halle and worked as a composer in Hamburg and Italy before settling in London in 1712; he became a naturalised British subject in 1727. He was strongly influenced both by the great composers of the Italian Baroque and by the middle-German polyphonic choral tradition.

Giulio Cesare in Egitto - Aria 'Da Tempeste' HWV17  - Opera

Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt) premiered on 20 February 1724 at the King’s Theatre in London, at a time at which Handel’s operatic career was at a peak. It starred many of the leading Italian singers of the day, including the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni as Cleopatra and the castrati Senesino and Gaetano Berenstadt as Caesar and Ptolemy respectively. The libretto by Nicolo Haym portrays the various characters as strong, complex individuals, giving Handel a wide emotional range to play with.

(b. Halle, February 23, 1685; d. London, April 14, 1759)

One of the most cosmopolitan and eclectic musicians of the 18th century, and a true celebrity in his day, he created works of lasting value in every important musical form known to his age. He was a pioneer in the field of opera, and all but invented the genre of English oratorio, of which Messiah is the most famous example.

The son of a barber-surgeon in the service of the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels, the young Handel was discouraged in his efforts to learn music. He nonetheless practiced the clavichord in the attic and became so skilled that, at the Duke's urging, he was allowed to study with Friedrich Zachow, an organist in Halle. From this teacher, he received a thorough grounding in keyboard technique and composition. In 1703 he left Halle for Hamburg, where he played violin and harpsichord in the city's opera house. It was here, in 1704, that he composed his first opera, Almira, which, though it bears the stamp of a 19-year-old's freshman attempt at vocal composition, shows evidence of the many influences that would eventually make Handel an opera composer par excellence: elements of French tragic opera and German singspiel and an uncanny understanding of Italian opera, extremely popular at the time.

In 1706, Handel set off for Italy, quickly establishing himself in Rome, where he realized that the native composers were circumventing the papal ban on opera by composing oratorios and cantatas in a theatrical style—in essence, operas without staging, costumes, or sets. Following their example, he fashioned a pair of oratorios—Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (1707) and La resurrrezione (1708)—and many cantatas before heading north back to his homeland.

In 1710, at the age of 25, Handel was appointed Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover—the future King George I of England—and was granted an immediate leave of absence to spend the better part of a year in London. He returned to Hanover in the summer of 1711, but in the fall of 1712 again asked to be relieved of his duties in order to visit London, agreeing to return "within a reasonable time."

During his first London sojourn, in 1711, Handel had written the well-received Italian opera Rinaldo, which premiered on the night he turned 26; his librettist, Giacomo Rossi, was knocked out by the sheer speed at which the composer had worked. "Mr. Handel," he wrote, "the Orpheus of our century, while composing the music, scarcely gave me time to write, and to my great wonder I saw an entire opera put to music by that surprising genius, with the greatest degree of perfection, in only two weeks." Following his return to London, early in 1713, Handel penned a birthday ode for Queen Anne, Eternal Source of Light Divine, which went unperformed due to her flagging health. He was beginning to make a name for himself as a composer for both the stage and the concert hall—and making a fair amount of money as well. But his love affair with London came at a cost: In June 1713 he was summarily dismissed from his Hanover post, despite the fact that he had been feeding useful information on the queen's condition to his employer's representatives in London. When George became King, following Anne's death in August 1714, he reinstated Handel's back wages from Hanover; the following month, as a sign of favor to his Kapellmeister, George attended a performance of Handel's "Caroline" TeDeum in the Chapel Royal at St. James's, and subsequently doubled Handel's salary.

After a number of successes on the stage—Teseo, Il Pastor Fido, and Amadigi di Gaula—Handel was the toast of London, just the person to create the music for a spectacular royal journey by barge up the Thames. The notion that a contrite Handel wrote the Water Music (1717) as a means of restoring himself to his king's good graces (passed down by John Mainwaring, the composer's first biographer) is a myth. George in fact remained a staunch supporter and patron to the end of his life, just as the Prince of Wales, the future George II, would be. Part of the reason was that Handel, like Purcell and John Blow (1649-1708) before him, and Elgar and Walton later on, proved to be a consummate master of ceremonial music. The four Coronation Anthems, composed for the coronation of King George II and Queen Caroline in 1727, and the Music for the Royal Fireworks, commissioned by George II to mark the signing of the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1749, are of the highest quality and exemplify the effort Handel put into his works of musical pageantry.

Handel also published two magnificent collections of concerti grossi—Op. 3, consisting of six works, in 1734, and Op. 6, containing 12 concertos, in 1740—as well as two collections of trio sonatas (Opp. 2 and 5) and dozens of suites for harpsichord, of which the eight collected in 1720 as the first Suites de pieces pour le clavecin are the most important.

But by temperament and training, Handel was, above all else, inclined to the theater. Between 1711 and 1741 he produced no fewer than 36 Italian operas, establishing himself as one of the supreme masters of the genre. Among the finest of his contributions were Tamerlane (1724), Giulio Cesare in Egitto (1724, a huge success with the castrato Senesino in the title role), Orlando (1733), Ariodante (1735), and Alcina (1735). By the time these later works appeared, the style of opera seria Handel had done so much to advance was on its way out. Moreover, the cost of staging these extravagant epics, and of engaging the finest singers to perform them, was starting to wreak havoc on Handel's bottom line. Remembering what he had learned in Rome, Handel hit upon the idea of the oratorio as a way to keep writing Italian opera in all but the words themselves (the texts would henceforth be in English), and simultaneously save the cost of mounting lavish productions in the theater.

The success of the oratorio Saul (1739) confirmed Handel in his commitment to the new genre. Still, he had much to learn about popular taste. Despite being one of his most imaginative and majestic works, his very next venture, Israel in Egypt (1739), failed to please because it offered relatively few solo numbers. But Handel's successes were many and dazzling. Among the greatest was Messiah, which premiered in Dublin in 1742, and was revived numerous times in London during Handel's lifetime. On the same lofty plane are a pair of oratorios that received their premieres in 1749. Solomon boasts fine writing for the solo singers, many magnificently composed pages for a large orchestra, and some of the biggest and greatest of Handelian choruses. Susanna, a more intimate and subtle work, presents a vivid characterization of its biblical heroine. Handel's production effectively ceased a few years later as blindness brought the curtain down on his career. He continued working to the end, however, and attended a performance of Messiah just a week before his death. As a sign of the esteem in which his adopted country held him, he was interred in Westminster Abbey.

"Handel understands effect better than any of us;when he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt."
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart


Key Works

Water music, HWV348-50

On 17July, 1717, a royal event of unusual splendour took place on the River Thames in London. King George 1 and a large number of nobles travelled up the Thames from the royal palace at Whitehall to Chelsea on open river barges, serenaded by 50 musicians playing three instrumental suites composed by Handel for the occasion. The guests feasted at Chelsea until the early morning, then returned to the barges and to Whitehall to the same music with which they had arrived.

These works were mere light entertainment, yet Handel employs his usual deft touch as a composer, presenting a happy juxtaposition of traditional minuets and English country dances. The WaterMusic also marks the first appearance of the French horn in an English orchestra, an instrument well-suited for outdoor performance.

Madrigal - Io Son Ferito, Ahi Lasso

Concerto Grosso, Op 6 No 7 in B-flat

1. Largo
2. Allegro 
3. Largo, e piano 
4. Andante 
5. Hornpipe

Harp Concerto in B flat Major Op. 4 No. 6, HWV 294

I. Andante allegro 
II. Larghetto 
III. Allegro moderato 

Trio sonata in B minor, Op. 2 No. 1 (HWV 386b)

Trio sonata No.1 for transverse flute, violin & continuo in B minor (HWV 386b)
I. Andante - 0:10
II. Allegro - 3:42
III. Largo - 6:32
IV. Allegro - 8:58

Organ Concerto Op 4 No 4 F major

Handel was a talented organist, and his organ concertos, originally intended to be performed between the sections

of his oratorios, gave him a chance to demonstrate his virtuosity. The Op. 4, No. 4 concerto (1735) was intended for a performance of Athalia. Previous concertos had accompanied Esther, Deborah, and Alexander’s Feast.

Messiah, HWV56

In 1741 Handel received an invitation from the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland to help raise money for three major Dublin charities through performances of his music. Although Handel was in poor health at the time, he was determined to compose a new sacred oratorio for the occasion, and turned to Charles Jennens, his librettist for Saul and Israel in Egypt, for an appropriate subject. Jennens responded with a collection of  Old and New Testament verses arranged into a three-part “argument” (as the librettist himself descibed it). The result was the best-known and best-loved of all Handel’s oratorios.

The text was not without controversy, with newspapers weighing in with debates as to its “blasphemous” nature. The finished product, however, produced a very different reception, earning critical praise first in Dublin and then in London. Handel made several subsequent revisions to the work, including a version created for Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital in 1754. Although the work remains a perennial favourite, nowadays most Christmas performances include only the first part plus the Hallelujah Chorus from Part Two.

Concerto Grosso, Op 6 No 6 in G Minor

1. Larghetto affectuoso
2. A tempo giusto
3. Musette: Larghetto
4. Allegro
5. Allegro

George Frideric Handel  and King George I on the River Thames, 17 July 1717, by Edouard Hamman (1819–88)

"The Chandos portrait of Georg Friedrich Händel" by James Thornhill, c. 1720

Handel by Philip Mercier

Caricature of Handel by Joseph Goupy (1754)

Coronation Anthems

Music for the Royal Fireworks

0:00 Ouverture
8:24 Bourrée
9:55 La paix
13:42 La Réjouissance
17:25 Minuet I & II

Organ Concertos

Concerto No.1 In B Flat Major
Concerto No.2 In A Major
Concerto No.3 In B Flat Major
Concerto No.4 In D Minor
Concerto No.5 In G Minor
Concerto No.6 In B Flat Major
Concerto No.4 In F Major
Concerto No.6 In B Flat Major
Concerto No.3 In G Minor
Concerto No.2 In B Flat Major
Concerto No.1 In G Minor
Concerto No.5 In F Major

Organ Concertos

CONCERTO op. 4 Nº 6, B flat major

CONCERTO op. 7 Nº 5, G minor

CONCERTO op. 4 Nº 2, B flat major

CONCERTO op. 4 Nº 4, F major

CONCERTO op. 7 Nº 4, D minor

CONCERTO op. 7 Nº 2, A major

Wind Sonatas

1. Oboe Sonata in C minor, Op.1, No.8, HWV 366
2. Oboe Sonata in B flat major, HWV 357
3. Oboe Sonata in f major, HWV 363a
4. Recorder Sonata in G minor, Op.1, No.2, HWV 360
5. Recorder Sonata in A minor, Op.1, No.4, HWV 362
6. Recorder Sonata in C major, Op.1, No.7, HWV 365
7. Recorder Sonata in F major, Op.1, No.11, HWV 369
8. Recorder Sonata in B flat major, HWV 377
9. Recorder Sonata in D minor, Op.1, No.8a, HWV 367a

Flute Sonatas - 1

1. Sonata in B Minor, Op. 1, No. 9 0:00
2. Sonata in A Minor, Op. 1, No. 4 14:19 
3. Sonata in G Major, Op. 1, No. 5 23:50
4. Sonata in E Minor, Halle Sonatas No. 2 32:41
5. Sonata in B Minor, Halle Sonatas No. 3 39:58

Flute Sonatas - 2

1. Sonata in A Minor, Halle Sonatas No. 1 0:00
2. Sonata in C Major, Op. 1, No. 7 11:14
3. Sonata in E Minor, Op. 1, No. 1b 22:38
4. Sonata in F Major, Op. 1, No. 11 29:57
5. Sonata in G Minor, Op. 1, No. 2 36:26

Violin Sonatas


Saul (oratorio in three acts), HWV 53 (1739)

Libretto: Charles Jennens { Link: 

00:00 - Overture (Allegro - Larghetto - Allegro - Andante larghetto)

Act I.
07:59 - Scene i (Nos. 1 - 5) / How excellent Thy name, o Lord [Chorus]
16:40 - Scene ii (Nos. 6 - 19) / He comes, he comes! [Michal]
38:54 - Scene ii (Nos. 20 - 21) / Symphony (Andante allegro) & Already see the daughters of the land [Michal]
40:16 - Scene iii (Nos. 22 - 26) / Welcome, welcome, mighty king! [Chorus]
43:59 - Scene iv (Nos. 27 - 30) / Imprudent women! [Jonathan] 
49:45 - Scene v (Nos. 31 - 37) / Racked with infernal pains [Abner]
1:01:51 - Scene vi (Nos. 38 - 41) / O filial piety! [Jonathan]

Act II.
1:08:26 - Scene i (No. 42) / Envy, Eldest born of hell! [Chorus]
1:11:16 - Scene ii (Nos. 43 - 47) / Ah! dearest friend [Jonathan]
1:19:10 - Scene iii (Nos. 48 - 51) / Hast thou obeyed my orders [Saul, Jonathan]
1:24:37 - Scene iv (Nos. 52 - 54) / Appear, my friend [Jonathan, Saul]
1:26:25 - Scene v (Nos. 55 - 57) / A father's will has authorised my love [Michal]
1:30:45 - No. 58: Symphony (Largo - Allegro)
1:35:19 - Scene vi (Nos. 59 - 60) / Thy father is as cruel [David]
1:36:56 - Scene vii (Nos. 61 - 62) / Whom dost thou seek [Michal, Doeg]
1:39:11 - Scene viii (Nos. 63 - 64) / Mean as he was, he is my brother now [Merab]
1:42:42 - No. 65: Symphony (Allegro)
1:43:48 - Scene ix (No. 66) / The time at length is come [Saul]
1:44:23 - Scene x (Nos. 67 - 68) / Where is the son of Jesse? [Saul, Jonathan]

Act III.
1:50:03 - Scene i (Nos. 69 - 70) / Wretch that I am [Saul]
1:53:23 - Scene ii (Nos. 71 - 72) / With me what would'st thou [Witch of Endor, Saul]
1:56:10 - Scene iii (Nos. 73) / Why hast thou forced me from the realms of peace [Ghost of Samuel, Saul]
1:58:52 - No. 74: Symphony (Allegro)
1:59:26 - Scene iv (Nos. 75 - 76) / Whence comest thou? [David, Amalekite]
2:02:17 - No. 77: March (Grave)
2:05:21 - Scene v (Nos. 78 - 86) / Mourn, Israel [Chorus]

Israel in Egypt

bottom of page