George Frideric Handel

In Christian theology the Messiah is the redeemer, savior of the Jewish people and mankind. The messiah is identified as the person of Jesus, known to his supporters as Jesus Christ. In Southampton, Jesus Christ has competition from Matt Le Tissier, a man who performed miracles of a very different sort but one who garners a similar following. In addition to Jesus Christ and Matt Le Tissier, there is also Handel’s Messiah, a stirring oratorio composed by George Frideric Handel in 1742, an oratorio that was first performed in Dublin’s St. Partick’s Cathedral of all places. An oratorio should not be confused with an opera. An oratorio is like an opera, but whilst an opera is musical theatre, an oratorio is strictly a concert piece with little or no interaction between the characters. There are no props. There are no elaborate costumes. There are, though, given the vocal requirements, fat ladies. Alleluia to that.

George Frideric Handel was born in Germany in 1685 yet spent much of his life in England. He was prolific a composer and, you suspect, a man who had good cause to look back on his life and think “mmm, gave that a go.” He left very little on the table. He composed forty-two operas, twenty nine oratorios, more than one hundred and twenty cantatas, trios and duets. As if that was not enough, he penned numerous arias, odes, serenatas and sixteen organ concerti. He never married did Handel, which perhaps afforded him the time to sit in his study with a whisky penning operas without being chased to take out the bins or fix the front fence.

You might have heard of the Messiah given it has become a popular Christmas time spectacle. You will also definitely have heard of Zadok the Priest which was composed for the coronation of King George II and has been sung at every coronation since. It is now widely regarded alongside Jerusalem, Land of Hope and Glory and the Lightning Seed’s Three Lions as a British patriotic staple. You might also have heard the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, which is very much the rage at middle class weddings. All Handel. Yet to get a proper idea of how good Handel actually was, you need to look no further than what his peers thought of the man who hailed from Halle – incidentally a small city in the Southern part of the German state of Saxony-Anhalt. If that matters to you.

Mozart, he who started composing music aged just five, said of Handel: “Handel understands affect better than any of us. When he chooses, he strikes like a thunder bolt”. And get this from Beethoven, yes Beethoven, the virtuoso pianist and one of the most famous composers to ever take an inked quill to a score. To Beethoven, Handel was “the master of us all…. The greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb”. Go Beethoven. The American musical historian Richard Taruskin later took a pot at Handel pointing out that he borrowed a lot of work from other composers. Despite this being common practice at the time Handel was, by all accounts, somewhat partial to slipping in the odd pre-prepared movement to get the job done. Whilst Taruskin’s point is a valid one, given Taruskin wrote no operas himself, Handel has little reason toss too much in his tomb, deep in storied vaults of Westminster Abbey.

Handel though very nearly didn’t become a composer. His father, who was a doddery sixty-three when young George was born, was very keen for his son to become a lawyer. A lawyer! Imagine that? A musical genius lost to the stifled corridors of law. Old Gerog meant it too, and banned his son from meddling with any musical instruments. The little man though was two steps ahead of the old man, and found means to get his hands on a small clavichord – a stringed keyboard instrument used largely as an aid to composition – which was spirited into the attic. When the family slept, George would be up in the attic tickling the ivories. On a trip to see a relative who was working for Duke Johan Adolf I, young George was lifted up onto an organ’s stool. As you might do with a young child. To everyone’s surprise George then bashed out a tune, at which point the Duke pulled his father aside and suggested he re-think the law option. Handel never looked back.

By 1710 Handel had become the Kapelimeister – the man in charge of making music – for the German Prince George who, following the death of Queen Anne in 1714, became King George I of Great Britain. As you do. Handel moved to London, and never moved back. In London he picked up some patrons including the 3rd Earl of Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork. To avoid any confusion this was one and the same man, Richard Boyle, who was also known as the “Apollo of the Arts”. Handel ultimately ended up dedicating two of his operas to him.

As his breathing began to rasp, Handel’s work ethic continued. The A sharps and E Flats tumbled as they ever did. He composed Music for the Royal Fireworks attended as it was by 12,000 people and went on to arrange a performance of his famous Messiah for the benefit of the Founding Hospital, founded by the philanthropic and jovial sea captain Thomas Coran.

Handel died at home on Brook Street, W1 aged a ripe – for the time – age of 74. More than a thousand mourners attended his funeral and he was buried with full state honours.

Fine job.

All together now…

Zadok the priest
And Nathan the prophet
Anointed Solomon king
And all the people
Rejoiced, rejoiced, rejoiced
And all the people
Rejoiced, rejoiced, rejoiced
Rejoiced, rejoiced, rejoiced
And all the people
Rejoiced, rejoiced, rejoiced and said:

God save the king
Long live the king
God save the king
May the king live forever
Amen, amen, alleluia, alleluia, amen, amen
Amen, amen, alleluia, amen


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