The Fantastic Foreigner
Handel and Bach, the two giants of late-Baroque music, could not have been more different. While Bach stayed close to home, Handel crisscrossed Europe, starting in Germany and settling in England. While Bach composed to glorify his God, Handel sought triumph (and sometimes met failure) in the very public arena of opera. Little was sacred in the opera world: Success came through music, money, fashion and personality. And while Bach raised a large family, Handel stayed a bachelor—with a hot temper and a reputation for crude manners. Musically, too, the two men were contrasts. Bach spun many inward, thoughtful constructions for solo instruments. Handel mastered the exuberant, grand gesture of massed voices and orchestra.
In Halle, Germany, Handel’s father tried to steer his son into law. But after his father died, the teenage Handel launched a meteoric career in music. At 17, he was a church organist. At 18, he played violin in an opera orchestra and, at 20, wrote his first opera for that ensemble. The following years, studying in Italy, were key ones for Handel. He absorbed from masters like Corelli the Italian style that dominated Baroque music—and established his own name as a composer. Handel returned to Germany briefly to a court appointment but soon left for England. The cultured wealthy of his day made it a point to take a “Grand Tour” of the European continent, and so, in London, Handel found an opera-going audience just as cosmopolitan as he.
In the next decades, Handel composed dozens of Italian-style operas and dominated the English music world. He also wrote concerto grossi and magnificent music for royal occasions, such as the Water Music suites that accompanied King George I along the Thames River. By the 1730s, though, England had had enough of elaborate Italian opera—one typical writer criticized “Handel’s lousy crew…of foreign fiddlers.” Reluctantly, slowly, Handel changed. His career found new life in a “religious opera” called oratorio. Unlike operas, oratorios, like Judas Maccabaeus, were based on Bible stories, emphasized the chorus over soloists, and featured concert dress, not costumes. To the public’s delight, the performers sang in English! Handel’s best-loved oratorio is Messiah—a three-hour retelling of the life of Jesus Christ. After its 1742 premier, Handel led annual Messiah performances to raise money for London’s Foundling Hospital. During breaks in the concerts, he would entertain listeners with his organ concertos and improvisations—even in his last years, when Handel was totally blind.
After his death, historians long ignored Handel’s operatic work. A new preference for women in roles that he had had men sing left little public interest in his Italian operas. Messiah, though, with its rousing “Hallelujah” chorus, has never fallen from favor. For many, Christmas or Easter would not be complete this greatest of Handel’s music.