George Frideric Handel

1685-1759. Music composer. Unlike Bach, who was born in the same year, Handel was not of a musical family, and his father only grudgingly acknowledged his musical talent and destined him for law. He received his early musical training from the distinguished organist and composer Zachow, in Halle. The greater part of his career was concerned with dramatic music, opera, and oratorio. His only music written for the church consists of his early German passions, the Latin psalms written during his sojourn in Italy, the cantata-like anthems composed for the British duke of Chandos, and occasional festal works for coronations and national celebrations. In the last category are the magnificent “Utrecht” and “Dettingen” Te Deums. The failure of his Italian opera enterprises in London led him to turn more and more to oratorios based on biblical themes. These appealed to a wider public in England because of the vernacular text and familiar plots. With the exception of Messiah and Israel in Egypt, which draw entirely upon direct biblical texts, the oratorios employed versified librettos, not always of great poetical merit.

Handel completely overshadowed his English contemporaries with the dramatic grandeur of his style and his instinct for excellent choral effect. The nobility of his melody, together with these other attributes, places him among the greatest composers of all time. The classical masters, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, admired and drew inspiration from his choral style. Oratorio was conceived as edifying Lenten entertainment, but numerous extracts from Handel's works of this sort found their way into the repertory of church choirs. Messiah (written 1741, first performed 1742), became the most performed major choral work in history, and continues to be. Handel was also an outstanding composer of chamber music and concertos.

R.M. Myers, Handel's Messiah: A Touchstone of Taste (1948); W. Dean, Handel's Dramatic Oratorios and Masks (1959); P.H. Lang, George Frideric Handel (1966).