George Frideric Handel was born as Georg Friedrich Händel in Halle in the Duchy of Magdeburg (province of Brandenburg-Prussia) to Georg and Dorothea (née Taust) Händel in 1685, the same year that both J.S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti were born. Handel displayed considerable musical talent at an early age; by the age of seven he was a skilful performer on the harpsichord and pipe organ, and at nine he began to compose music. However, his father, a distinguished citizen of Halle and an eminent barber-surgeon who served as valet and barber to the Courts of Saxony and Brandenburg, was opposed to his son’s wish to pursue a musical career, preferring him to study law. By contrast, Handel’s mother, Dorothea, encouraged his musical aspirations.
Nevertheless, the young Handel was permitted to take lessons in musical composition and keyboard technique from Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, the organist of the Liebfrauenkirche, Halle. For his seventh birthday his aunt, Anna, gave him a spinet, which was placed in the attic so that Handel could play it whenever he could get away from his father.
In 1702, following his father’s wishes, G.F. Handel began the study of law at the University of Halle, but after his father’s death the following year, he abandoned law for music, becoming the organist at the Protestant Cathedral. In 1704, he moved to Hamburg, accepting a position as violinist and harpsichordist in the orchestra of the opera house. There, he met Johann Mattheson, Christoph Graupner and Reinhard Keiser. His first two operas, Almira and Nero, were produced in 1705. Two other early operas, Daphne and Florindo, were produced in 1708.
During 1706-1709, G.F. Handel travelled to Italy at the invitation of Gian Gastone de’ Medici, and met Medici’s brother Ferdinando, a musician himself. While opera was temporarily banned at this time by the Pope, Handel found work as a composer of sacred music; the famous Dixit Dominus (1707) is from this era. He wrote many cantatas in operatic style for gatherings in the palace of Pietro Ottoboni (cardinal). His Rodrigo was produced in Florence in 1707, and his Agrippina at Venice in 1709. Agrippina, which ran for an unprecedented 27 performances, showed remarkable maturity and established his reputation as an opera composer. Two oratorios, La Resurrezione and Il Trionfo del Tempo, were produced in Rome in a private setting for Ruspoli and Ottoboni in 1709 and 1710, respectively.
In 1710, G.F. Handel became Kapellmeister to George, Elector of Hanover, who would soon be King George I of Great Britain. He visited Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici on his way to London in 1710, where he settled permanently in 1712, receiving a yearly income of £200 from Queen Anne. During his early years in London, one of his most important patrons was the young and wealthy Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, who showed an early love of his music. Handel spend the most carefree time of his life at Cannons and laid the cornerstone for his future choral compositions in the twelve Chandos Anthems. Romain Rolland states that these anthems were as important for his oratorios as the cantates for his operas. He highly estimates also Acis and Galatea, like Winton Dean, who writes the music catches breath and disturbs the memory. During Handel’s life time it was his most performed work.
In 1723 G.F. Handel moved into a newly built house at 25 Brook Street, London, which he rented until his death in 1759. This house is now the Handel House Museum, a restored Georgian house open to the public with an events programme of Baroque music. There is a blue commemorative plaque on the outside of the building. It was here that he composed Messiah, Zadok the Priest and Music for the Royal Fireworks. (In 2000, the upper stories of 25 Brook Street were leased to the Handel House Trust, and after an extensive restoration program, the Handel House Museum opened to the public on November 8, 2001.)
In 1726 G.F. Handel’s opera Scipio (Scipione) was performed for the first time, the march from which remains the regimental slow march of the British Grenadier Guards. He was naturalised a British subject in the following year.
In 1727 G.F. Handel was commissioned to write four anthems for the coronation ceremony of King George II. One of these, Zadok the Priest, has been played at every British coronation ceremony since. Handel was director of the Royal Academy of Music from 1720 to 1728, and a partner of J.J. Heidegger in the management of the King’s Theatre from 1729 to 1734. Handel also had a long association with the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, where many of his Italian operas were premiered.
In April 1737, at age 52, he suffered a stroke or some other malady which left his right arm temporarily paralysed and stopped him from performing. He also complained of difficulties in focusing his sight. Handel went to Aix-la-Chapelle, taking hot baths and playing organ for the audience. Handel gave up operatic management entirely in 1740, after he had lost a fortune in the business.
Following his recovery, G.F. Handel focused on composing oratorios instead of opera. Handel’s Messiah was first performed in New Musick Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin on April 13, 1742, with 26 boys and five men from the combined choirs of St Patrick’s and Christ Church cathedrals participating. In 1749 he composed Music for the Royal Fireworks; 12,000 people came to listen. Three people died, including one of the trumpeters on the day after.
In 1750 G.F. Handel arranged a performance of Messiah to benefit the Foundling Hospital. The performance was considered a great success and was followed by annual concerts that continued throughout his life. In recognition of his patronage, Handel was made a governor of the Hospital the day after his initial concert. He bequeathed a fair copy of Messiah to the institution upon his death. His involvement with the Foundling Hospital is today commemorated with a permanent exhibition in London’s Foundling Museum, which also holds the Gerald Coke Handel Collection.
In August 1750, on a journey back from Germany to London, G.F. Handel was seriously injured in a carriage accident between The Hague and Haarlem in the Netherlands. In 1751 his eyesight started to fail in one eye. The cause was unknown and progressed into his other eye as well. He died some eight years later, in 1759, in London, his last attended performance being his own Messiah. More than three thousand mourners attended his funeral, which was given full state honours, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey.
G.F. Handel never married, and kept his personal life very private. Unlike many composers, he left a sizable estate at his death – worth £20,000 (an enormous amount for the day), the bulk of which he left to a niece in Germany – as well as gifts to his other relations, servants, friends and to favourite charities.