While Sebastian Bach was laboriously copying out music by pale moonlight, because of his great love for it, another child of the same age was finding the greatest happiness of his life seated before an old spinet, standing in a lumber garret. He was trying to make music from those half dumb keys. No one had taught him how to play; it was innate genius that guided his little hands to find the right harmonies and bring melody out of the old spinet.
The boy’s name was George Frederick Handel, and he was born in the German town of Halle, February 23, 1685. Almost from infancy he showed a remarkable fondness for music. His toys must be able to produce musical sounds or he did not care for them. The child did not inherit a love for music from his father, for Dr. Handel, who was a surgeon, looked on music with contempt, as something be-neat the notice of a gentleman. He had decided his son was to be a lawyer, and refused to allow him to attend school for fear some one might teach him his notes. The mother was a sweet gentle woman, a second wife, and much younger than her husband, who seemed to have ruled his household with a rod of iron.
When little George was about five, a kind friend, who knew how he longed to make music, had a spinet sent to him unbeknown to his father, and placed in a corner of the old garret. Here the child loved to come when he could escape notice. Often at night, when all were asleep, he would steal away to the garret and work at the spinet, mastering difficulties one by one. The strings of the instrument had been wound with cloth to deaden the sound, and thus made only a tiny tinkle.
After this secret practising had been going on for some time, it was discovered one night; when little George was enjoying his favorite pastime. He had been missed and the whole house went in search. Finally the father, holding high the lantern in his hand and followed by mother and the rest of the inmates, reached the garret, and there found the lost child seated at his beloved spinet, quite lost to the material world. There is no record of any angry outburst on the father’s part and it is likely little George was left in peace.
One day when the boy was seven years old, the father was about to start for the castle of the Duke of Weissenfels, to see his son, a step-brother of George, who was a valet de chamber to the Duke. Little George begged to go too, for he knew there was music to be heard at the castle. In spite of his father’s refusal he made up his mind to go if he had to run every step of the way. So watching his chance, he started to run after the coach in which his father rode. The child had no idea it was a distance of forty miles. He strove bravely to keep pace with the horses, but the roads were rough and muddy. His strength beginning to fail, he called out to the coachman to stop. His father, hearing the boy’s voice, looked out of the window. Instead of scolding the little scamp roundly, he was touched by his woebegone appearance, had him lifted into the coach and carried on to Weissenfels.
George enjoyed himself hugely at the castle. The musicians were very kind to him, and his delight could hardly be restrained when he was allowed to try the beautiful organ in the chapel. The organist stood behind him and arranged the stops, and the child put his fingers on the keys that made the big pipes speak. During his stay, George had several chances to play; one was on a Sunday at the close of the service. The organist lifted him upon the bench and bade him play. Instead of the Duke and all his people leaving the chapel, they stayed to listen. When the music ceased the Duke asked: “Who is that child? Does anybody know his name?” The organist was sent for, and then little George was brought. The Duke patted him on the head, praised his playing and said he was sure to become a good musician. The organist then re-marked he had heard the father disapproved of his musical studies. The Duke was greatly astonished. He sent for the father and after speaking highly of the boy’s talent, said that to place any obstacle in the child’s way would be unworthy of the father’s honorable profession.
And so it was settled that George Frederick should devote himself to music. Frederick Zachau, organist of the cathedral at Halle, was the teacher chosen to instruct the boy on the organ, harpsichord and violin.. He also taught him composition, and showed him how different countries and composers differed in their ideas of musical style. Very soon the boy was composing the regular weekly service for the church, besides playing the organ whenever Zachau happened to be absent. At that time the boy could not have been more than eight years old.
After three years’ hard work his teacher told him he must seek another master, as he could teach him nothing more. So the boy was sent to Berlin, to continue his studies. Two of the prominent musicians there were Ariosti and Buononcini; the former received the boy kindly and gave him great encouragement; the other took a dislike to the little fellow, and tried to injure him. Pretending to test his musicianship, Buononcini composed a very difficult piece for the harpsichord and asked him to play it at sight. This the boy did with ease and correctness. The Elector was delighted with the little musician, offered him a place at Court and even promised to send him to Italy to pursue his studies. Both offers were refused and George returned to Halle and to his old master, who was happy to have him back once more.
Not long after this the boy’s father passed away, and as there was but little money left for the mother, her son decided at once that he must support himself and not deprive her of her small income. He acted as deputy organist at the Cathedral and Castle of Halle, and a few years later, when the post was vacant, secured it at a salary of less than forty dollars a year and free lodging. George Frederick was now seventeen and longed for a broader field. Knowing that he must leave Halle to find it, he said good-by to his mother, and in January 1703, set out for Hamburg to seek his fortune.
The Opera House Orchestra needed a supplementary violin. It was a very small post, but he took it, pretending not to be able to do anything better. However a chance soon came his way to show what he was capable of. One day the conductor, who always presided at the harpsichord, was absent, and no one was there to take his place. Without delay George came forward and took his vacant seat. He conducted so ably, that he secured the position for himself.
The young musician led a busy life in Hamburg, filled with teaching, study and composition. As his fame increased he secured more pupils, and he was not only able to support himself, but could send some money to his mother. He believed in saving money whenever he could; he knew a man should not only be self supporting, but somewhat independent, in order to produce works of art.
Handel now turned his attention to opera, composing “Almira, Queen of Castile,” which was produced in Hamburg early in January 1705. This success encouraged him to write others; indeed he was the author of forty operas, which are only remembered now by an occasional aria. During these several years of hard work he had looked forward to a journey to Italy, for study. He was now a composer of some note and decided it was high time to carry out his cherished desire.
He remained some time in Florence and composed the opera “Rodrigo,” which was per-formed with great success. While in Venice he brought out another opera, “Agrippina,” which had even greater success. Rome delighted him especially and he returned for a second time in 1709. Here he composed his first oratorio, the “Resurrection,” which was produced there. Handel returned to Germany the following year. The Elector of Hanover was kind to him, and offered him the post of Capellmeister, with a salary of about fifteen hundred dollars. He had long desired to visit England, and the Elector gave him leave of absence. First, however, he went to Halle to see his mother and his old teacher. We can imagine the joy of the meeting, and how proud and happy both were at the success of the young musician. After a little time spent with his dear ones, he set out for England.
Handel came to London, preceded by the fame of his Italian success. Italian opera was the vogue just then in the English capital, but it was so badly produced that a man of Handel’s genius was needed to properly set it before the people. He had not been long on English soil when he produced his opera “Rinaldo,” at the Queen’s Theater; it had taken him just two weeks to compose the opera. It had great success and ran night after night. There are many beautiful airs in “Rinaldo,” some of which we hear today with the deepest pleasure. “Lascia eh’ jo pianga” and “Cara si’s sposa” are two ,of them. The Londoners had welcomed Handel with great cordiality and with his new opera he was firmly established in their regard. With the young musician likewise there seemed to be a sincere affection for England. He returned in due time to his duties in Hanover, but he felt that London was the field for his future activities.
It was not very long after his return to Germany that he sought another leave of absence to visit England; promising to return within a “reasonable time.” London received him with open arms and many great people showered favors upon him. Lord Burlington invited him to his residence in Piccadilly, which at that time consisted of green fields. The only return to be made for all this social and home luxury was that he should conduct the Earl’s chamber concerts. Handel devoted his abundant leisure to composition, at which he worked with much ardor. His fame was making great strides, and when the Peace of Utrecht was signed and a Thanksgiving service was to be held in St. Paul’s, he was commissioned to compose a Te Deum and Jubilate. To show appreciation for his work and in honor of the event, Queen Anne awarded Handel a life pension of a thousand dollars.
The death of the Queen, not long after, brought the Elector of Hanover to England, to succeed her as George I. It was not likely that King George would look with favor on his former Capelhneister, who had so long deserted his post. But an opportunity soon came to placate his Majesty. A royal entertainment, with decorated barges on the Thames was arranged. An orchestra was to furnish the music, and the Lord Chamberlain commissioned Handel to compose music for the fete. He wrote a series of pieces, since known as “Water Music.” The king was greatly delighted with the music, had it repeated, and learning that Handel conducted in person, sent for him, forgave all and granted him another pension of a thousand dollars. He was also appointed teacher to the daughters of the Prince of Wales, at a salary of a thousand a year. With the combined sum (three thousand dollars) which he now received, he felt quite independent, indeed a man of means.
Not long after this Handel was appointed Chapel master to the Duke of Chandos, and was expected to live at the princely mansion he inhabited. The size and magnificence of The Cannons was the talk of the country for miles around. Here the composer lived and worked, played the organ in the chapel, composed church music for the service and wrote his first English oratorio, “Esther.” This was performed in the Duke’s chapel, and the Duke on this occasion handed the composer five thousand dollars. Numerous compositions for the harpsichord belong to this period, among them the air and variations known as “The Harmonious Blacksmith.” The story goes that Handel was walking to Cannons through the village of Edgeware, and being overtaken by a heavy shower, sought shelter in the smithy. The blacksmith was singing at his work and his hammer kept time with his song. The composer was struck with the air and its accompaniment, and as soon as he reached home, wrote out the tune with the variations. This story has been disputed, and it is not known whether it is true or not.
When Handel first came to London, he had done much to encourage the production of opera in the Italian style. Later these productions had to be given up for lack of money, and the King’s Theater remained closed for a long time. Finally a number of rich men formed a society to revive opera in London. The King sub-scribed liberally to the venture. Handel was at once engaged as composer and impressario. He started work on a new opera and when that was well along, set out for Germany, going to Dresden to select singers. On his return he stopped at Halle, where his mother was still living, but his old teacher had passed away.
The new opera “Radamisto” was ready early in 1720, and produced at the Royal Academy of Music, as the theater was now called. The success of the production was tremendous. But Handel, by his self-will had stirred up envy and jealousy, and an opposition party was formed, headed by his old enemy from Hamburg, Buononcini, who had come to London to try his for-tunes. A test opera was planned, of which Handel wrote the third act, Buononcini the second and a third musician the first. When the new work was performed, the third act was pronounced by the judges much superior to the second. But Buononcini’s friends would not accept defeat, and the battle between all parties was violent. Newspapers were full of it, and many verses were written. Handel cared not a whit for all this tempest, but calmly went his way.
In 1723, his opera “Ottone” was to be produced. The great singer Cuzzoni had been en-gaged, but the capricious lady did not arrive in England till the rehearsals were far advanced, which of course did not please the composer. When she did appear she refused to sing the aria as he had composed it. He flew into a rage, took her by the arm and threatened to throw her out of the window unless she obeyed. The singer was so frightened by his anger that she sang as he directed, and made a great success of the aria.
Handel’s industry in composing for the Royal Academy of Music was untiring. For the first eight years from the beginning of the Society’s work he had composed and produced fourteen operas. During all this time, his enemies never ceased their efforts to destroy him. The great expense of operatic production, the troubles and quarrels with singers, at last brought the Academy to the end of its resources. At this juncture, the famous “Beggar’s Opera,” by John Gay, was brought out at a rival theater. It was a collection of most beautiful melodies from various sources, used with words quite unworthy of them. But the fickle public hailed the piece with delight, and its success was the means of bringing total failure to the Royal Academy. Handel, however, in spite of the schemes of his enemies, was determined to carry on the work with his own fortune. He went again to Italy to engage new singers, stopping at Halle to see his mother who was ill. She passed away the next year at the age of eighty.
Handel tried for several years to keep Italian opera going in London, in spite of the lack of musical taste and the opposition of his enemies; but in 1737, he was forced to give up the struggle. He was deeply in debt, his whole fortune of ten thousand pounds had been swept away and his health broken by anxiety. He would not give up ; after a brief rest, he returned to London to begin the conflict anew. The effort to re-awaken the English public’s interest in Italian opera seemed useless, and the composer at last gave up the struggle. He was now fifty-five, and began to think of turning his attention to more serious work. Handel has been called the father of the oratorio; he composed at least twenty-eight works in this style, the best known being “Sam-son,” “Israel in Egypt,” “Jephtha,” “Saul,” “Judas Maccabaeus” and greatest of all, the “Messiah.”
The composer conceived the idea of writing the last named work in 1741. Towards the end of this year he was invited to visit Ireland to make known some of his works. On the way there he was detained at Chester for several days by contrary winds. He must have had the score of the “Messiah” with him, for he got together some choir boys to try over a few of the choral parts. “Can you sing at sight?” was put to each boy be-fore he was asked to sing. One broke down at the start. “What de devil you meant” cried the impetuous composer, snatching the music from him. “Didn’t you say you could sing at sight?”
“Yes sir, but not at first sight.”
The people of Dublin warmly welcomed ‘Handel, and the new oratorio, the “Messiah,” was performed at Music Hall, with choirs of both cathedrals, and with some concertos on the organ played by the composer. The performance took place, April 13, 1742. Four hundred pounds were realized, which were given to charity. The success was so great that a second performance was announced. Ladies were requested to come without crinoline, thereby providing a hundred more seats than at the first event.
The Irish people were so cordial, that the composer remained almost a year among them. For it was not till March 23, 1743, that the “Messiah” was performed in London. The King was one of the great audience who heard it. All were so deeply impressed by the Hallelujah chorus, that with the opening words, “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth,” the whole audience, including the King, sprang to their feet, and remained standing through the entire chorus. From that time to this it has always been the custom to stand during this chorus, whenever it is performed.
Once started on this line of thought, one oratorio after another flowed from his prolific pen, though none of them proved to be as exalted in conception as the “Messiah.” The last work of this style was “Jephtha,” which contains the beautiful song, “Waft her, angels.” While engaged in composing this oratorio, Handel be-came blind, but this affliction did not seem to lessen his power for work. He was now sixty-eight, and had conquered and lived down most of the hostility that had been so bitter against him. His fortunes also constantly improved, so that when he passed away he left twenty thousand pounds.
The great composer was a big man, both physically and mentally. A friend describes his countenance as full of fire; “when he smiled it was like the sun bursting out of a black cloud. It was a sudden flash of intelligence, wit and good humor, which illumined his countenance, which I have hardly ever seen in any other.” He could relish a joke, and had a keen sense of humor. Few things outside his work interested him; but he was fond of the theater, and liked to go to picture sales. His fiery temper often led him to explode at trifles. No talking among the listeners could be borne by him while he was con-ducting. He did not hesitate to visit violent abuse on the heads of those who ventured to speak while he was directing and not even the presence of royalty could restrain his anger.
Handel was always generous in assisting those who needed aid, and he helped found the Society for Aiding Distressed Musicians. His last appearance in public, was at a performance of the “Messiah,” at Covent Garden, on April 6, 1759. His death occurred on the 14th of the same month, at the house in Brook Street where he had lived for many years. Thus, while born in the same year as Sebastian Bach, he outlived him by about a decade. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, and later a fine monument was erected to his memory. The most of his manuscripts came into the possession of King George III, and are preserved in the musical library of Buckingham Palace.