There are few pieces in classical music as awe-inspiring or easily recognized as the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah.
But who was the man behind it, and what is his story?
In this series, we’re discovering the lives of the best composers in Western music history and why their work matters to us today.
This is George’s story.
George Frideric Handel.
He was christened as “Georg”, after his father, but he changed to the Anglican spelling of his name after settling in England.
A prolific composer of opera, oratorios, church cantatas, and chamber music.
He is best known for his many oratorios, which he began to compose after opera increasingly fell out of favor in England.
Handel’s Messiah, an oratorio about the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is his most popular work.
February 23rd, 1685 – April 14th, 1759.
Handel lived during the late Baroque period. He was a contemporary of J.S. Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, Domenico Scarlatti, and Georg Philipp Telemann.
Germany originally, then England.
Born in Halle, he worked in Hamburg and then Venice for a time before traveling to Britain.
He purchased a house in London in 1723 and lived there the rest of his life, officially becoming a British citizen in 1727.
Why It Matters
Handel was one of the most influential composers of the Baroque era, and his genius, especially in choral music, is hard to surpass.
Already a master of German and Italian musical styles before arriving in Britain, he helped elevate classical music in England to a level not reached before or since. He is revered by the English to this day as one of the finest composers in their history.
Handel is also remembered for his appeal to middle-class Englishmen, who flocked to hear his biblically-based oratorios. He succeeded in bringing music to the common masses, rather than just the very wealthy.
And of course, no discussion of Handel’s legacy is complete without mentioning his Messiah, which is quite possibly the most often-performed choral work in all of history.
Other Interesting Facts
His father, Georg, did not approve of his son’s musical ambitions. He would have rather seen him become a lawyer like himself. Not one to be deterred, little Handel took to practicing his instruments in secret.
Handel did eventually honor his father’s wishes by attending law school, but it didn’t last long. He dropped out and became a full-time musician.
Despite Handel’s musical genius, he was less skilled in dealing with people and was prone to losing his temper, especially while he was working.
He appears to have struggled with an eating disorder (though such disorders were not diagnosed in his lifetime).
Handel was born in the same year as J.S. Bach and in the same region of Germany. However, the two composers never met.
The British royals were fans of Handel’s work. Queen Anne was one of his best patrons, and he wrote a special composition for her birthday.
Later, King George II of England was so moved by Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah that he stood up in the crowd. Royal etiquette dictated that everyone else stand when the king does, so the whole audience ended up on their feet. This tradition continues to this day: everyone stands whenever the Hallelujah Chorus is performed.
When asked in later life if he was glad Messiah had entertained so many people, Handel famously replied, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wished to make them better.”
Handel suffered two strokes in his fifties, but made a full recovery from both of them. He eventually began to lose his eyesight (probably due to cataracts). Sadly, he was blinded by the same quack surgeon who had previously blinded J.S. Bach.
He was so popular in his adopted country that thousands of Englishmen attended his funeral.
Having never married, he left everything to his friends, servants and London’s Foundling Hospital, of which he had been an enthusiastic patron.
He was greatly admired by Mozart and is said to have been the favorite composer of Beethoven.
Below is a rendition of one of the most recognizable pieces of classical music in history: the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah.
And that is the story of George F. Handel. What do you think of him?