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George Frideric Handel, born in Halle, Prussia, on Feb. 23, 1685, was discouraged by his parents from studying music as a boy. Luckily, his father's employer the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels heard young Handel playing the organ and persuaded his parents to let him have a musical education. In 1702 Handel became the organist at the Calvinist Cathedral of Halle. It is believed that he visited Berlin at that time, where he met Giovanni Bononcini and Attilio Ariosti and developed an interest in composing operas.
In 1703 Handel went to the opera house in Hamburg as second violinist. The resident composer Reinhard Keiser had to leave town quickly owing to large debts. He left an opera unproduced and when Handel was asked to set the same libretto to new music, he had his first production in 1704 of Almira, which was highly successful.
Ferdinando de' Medici encouraged Handel to travel to Florence to familiarize himself with the Italian style. There he composed operas and church music (including the oratorio La resurrezione) and had his music performed in Florence, Naples, Rome and Venice, all the while perfecting his ability to set Italian words to music. His opera Agrippina opened the 1709 carnival and was a huge success.
In 1710 he took the position of Kapellmeister to the elector of Hanover (and future King George II of England). Handel traveled to England in 1710, a time when London audiences were clamouring for Italian opera. Until then, the productions that had been mounted were adaptations of Italian operas, many of these versions arranged by Nicola Haym. Handel was to present the first real Italian opera written for London and performed by Italians (the castrati were especially favoured by audiences): Rinaldo premiered in 1711 and was a sensation.
In 1713 Handel was released from his employment in Hanover, possibly because he had expressed a desire to settle in London. He composed more operas to mixed success but was also writing church music as well, including Te Deum (1713) and Jubilate (1714), the latter of which had its first performance for the new king, the former elector of Hanover. For his music for the church and the court, Handel was awarded a pension. 1717 saw the premiere of his Water Music. That same year he took a position with the Earl of Carnarvon (soon to be Duke of Chandos) in London where he wrote 11 anthems and two dramatic works, Acis and Galatea and Esther.
In 1719 Handel was appointed the musical director of the newly founded Royal Academy of Music, for which he wrote a dazzling series of operas: Rodelinda, Giulio Cesare, Giulio Ottone, and Admeto, ending when the Academy closed in 1728 due to lack of funds. In 1723 Handel took British naturalization. Beginning in 1729 he launched a series of opera seasons at the King's Theatre. Works included Acis and Galatea, Orlando, Ariodante and Alcina. In 1741 Messiah was premiered in Dublin and Handel stopped composing operas. From then, his work was taken up with oratorios, (including Semele, Samson, Belshazar and Judas Maccabaeus), orchestral works (including the Concerto grosso, Op. 6, 1740) and revivals of his many operas. When Handel died in London on April 14, 1759, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.
He was, and is still acclaimed as, a supreme artist of the Baroque era. His powerful, beautiful and vividly dramatic music is shown in all his works, including the English oratorio, a genre he created.
Alice Coote as Dejanira in the Canadian Opera Company production of Hercules, 2014. Photo: Michael Cooper
Generously underwritten in part by Anne and Tony Arrell,
and Donald E. O'Born