George Frideric Handel



1685 is a great year in musical history: it is when two of the finest composers ever, Bach and Handel, were born in Germany. Both were vastly successful, though in different ways. Both went blind and were operated on, unsuccessfully, by the same surgeon. But they never met each other! In many ways, they were opposites: Bach stayed within Germany while Handel travelled to Italy and England; Bach did not write operas; Handel was not born into a musical family. There were many differences, yet they both wrote music that has proved unforgettable.

Handel was ambitious and liked money. When George I became King of England, Handel was already in the country, hoping for opportunities! He stayed in England for the rest of his life. Having been born in Germany and travelled to Italy, he brought German solidity and Italian grace to English music. He became popular. He made (and lost) several fortunes. He wrote music that is strong and simple. But his is the simplicity that comes from a complete mastery of what is actually complicated. It is not surprising that Beethoven admired Handel above all other composers.

The Water Music, the Messiah, the Music for the Royal Fireworks, Zadok the Priest, The Harmonious Blacksmith… Handel wrote classic after classic, yet the bulk of his music is not well known. Yet if you delve more deeply to listen to more of his music, you can find wonders everywhere.

Handel’s strong character and great music prompted many stories: how he held a soprano out of the window by her ankles until she sang properly; how an Irish clergyman was so moved by the aria ‘He was despised’ in the premiere of the Messiah that he cried out to the woman singing it ‘Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!’ It has been said that in this same premiere, the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus inspired King George II to stand up; even if the story isn’t true, it began a tradition that continues today, so audiences rise to their feet when they hear it. Messiah is an oratorio – a work for chorus and orchestra on a sacred subject. Handel is probably most famous for his oratorios, which he began to write when Italian opera became unfashionable.

Listen carefully to the music of this exuberant man: it is full of warmth and imagination.

George Frideric Handel, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Get a handle on Handel!

Water Music: Suite No. 1 in F major, HWV 348: VI. Air

This famous air is from the Water Music. It is stately and melodious (tuneful!) – exactly what is meant by the adjective ‘Handelian’.

Performers: Capella Istropolitana; Bohdan Warchal

Taken from Naxos 8.550109

Messiah: Chorus: Hallelujah

One of the most famous choruses ever written, the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus is splendid and life-affirming. Even if King George II wasn’t at the premiere of Messiah and so couldn’t have stood up for this chorus, the music makes the story enjoyable and believable!

Performers: Bratislava City Choir; Capella Istropolitana; Jaroslav Krček

Taken from Naxos 8.556665

Solomon, HWV 67: Act III. Sinfonia, ‘Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’

This has become popular wedding music. It comes from Handel’s oratorio Solomon, first performed in 1749 at the theatre in Covent Garden.

Performers: Budapest Strings

Taken from Naxos 8.556665

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Handel moved to England when which king (who spoke no English) became king of England?

a. Henry VIII
b. George III
c. George I

 Handel was a generous man. He performed a famous oratorio for the benefit of the Foundling Hospital in London, a home for orphans. Which oratorio was it?

a. Christ on the Mount of Olives
b. Jephthah
c. Messiah

 Handel was born in the same year as another great composer. Who was he?

a. W.A. Mozart
b. J.S. Bach
c. F.J. Haydn

 Handel wrote many operas. In which language were most of them set?

a. German
b. Italian
c. English

 Two hundred years after Handel died, who lived next-door to his house in Brook Street?

a. Paul McCartney
b. Jimi Hendrix
c. David Bowie

Key Facts…

Key Facts…
  1. Handel was born in Halle, in Germany, and spoke fluent German.
  2. Handel’s Dad, who was a lawyer, did not want his son to become a musician, so Handel used to sneak into the attic to play the clavichord when his Dad didn’t notice.
  3. In 1704, Handel had a big argument with an obscure composer called Mattheson which led to a duel. Mattheson’s sword luckily caught a button on Handel’s waistcoat rather than reaching his body!
  4. Handel lived at 25 Brook Street in London, now marked by a blue plaque on the wall. Jimi Hendrix lived next door and also has a blue plaque!
  5. Beethoven said of Handel: ‘Go to him to learn how to achieve great effects by such simple means.’ References don’t come much better than that!

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!


Organ Concerto No. 13 in F major, HWV 295, ‘The Cuckoo and The Nightingale’

Handel’s six organ concertos – the first organ concertos to be written – were composed around 1735. They were for playing in breaks during performances of oratorios, and Handel may well have written them to show off his great skills as an organist.

Performers: Johann Aratore, organ; Handel Festival Chamber Orchestra

Taken from Naxos 8.550069

Concerto grosso in G major, Op. 3 No. 3, HWV 314

Handel wrote six concerti grossi published as his Opus 3. A concerto grosso pits the orchestra against a small group of instruments. Handel’s are masterpieces. They involve many virtuoso bits for individual instruments. This third of the set contains the usual four short movements though the first is so short it is more like a prelude than a proper movement.

Performers: Capella Istropolitana; Jozef Kopelman

Taken from Naxos 8.550157

Concerto grosso in G minor, Op. 6 No. 6, HWV 324

This longer concerto grosso, No. 6 from his Opus 6 set, has five movements. The magnificent first movement is one of Handel’s darkest, and the ‘Musette’ (movement 3) is a powerful and elegiac piece. Handel often performed it himself.

Performers: Capella Istropolitana; Jozef Kopelman

Taken from Naxos 8.550157

Oboe Concerto No. 3 in G minor, HWV 287

Handel composed his well-known Oboe Concerto No. 3 before he left Germany for England. It is written for oboe, orchestra and what is called ‘continuo’. Many Baroque works have a ‘continuo’ part – a harpsichord, organ and/or string instrument providing a ‘continuous’ bass line and harmonic support all the way through.

Performers: Anthony Camden, oboe; City of London Sinfonia; Nicholas Ward

Taken from Naxos 8.553430

Choral Music

Messiah, HWV 56 (excerpts)

Handel’s best-known and, possibly, greatest work is the oratorio, Messiah, written in an incredibly brief 24 days. It is based on some of the most moving texts from the Bible and describes the nativity, passion, resurrection and ascension of Christ. It was first performed in Dublin and, after a lukewarm reception, went on to become a worldwide institution, one of the great works of art.

Performers: Scholars Baroque Ensemble

Taken from Naxos 8.553258

Dixit Dominus, HWV 232

This is a setting of the words of Psalm 110 – in Latin. They begin with ‘Dixit Dominus Domino meo: Sede a dextris meis’ which means ‘The Lord said unto my Lord: sit thou at my right hand’. It begins with a lively movement for the choir, and in between other choral movements there are solo arias. Listen to the final crisp movement for choir – there are different lines weaving together (what we call ‘polyphonic’), as the voices exclaim ‘Gloria Patri’ – ‘Glory be to the Father’.

Performers: Scholars Baroque Ensemble

Taken from Naxos 8.553208

Ode for St Cecilia’s Day, HWV 76

St Cecilia was the patron saint of music and Handel does her justice here! The words are by the great English poet John Dryden, and they express the idea that music is central to the harmony of the universe. Listen to the opening where the string instruments have dotted rhythms – a jolty sort of sound that gives the effect of a steadiness and importance.

Performers: Dorothee Mields, soprano; Mark Wilde, tenor; Alsfelder Vocal Ensemble; Concerto Polacco; Wolfgang Helbich

Taken from Naxos 8.554752

Celebratory Music

Music for the Royal Fireworks, HWV 351

This much-loved work was written to celebrate the end of the War of Austrian Succession in 1748 and was first performed at a firework display in Green Park, London, the following year. Can you hear the trumpets shining through? They help to create the celebratory sound.

Performers: Capella Istropolitana; Bohdan Warchal

Taken from Naxos 8.550109

Water Music: Suite No. 1 in F major, HWV 348

The Water Music was written by Handel in response to George I’s wish to give a concert on the River Thames. It was published as three suites. The music is varied and full of outdoor energy. Different instruments are highlighted at different times: you can hear a long and beautiful oboe solo in Movement III, and the horns begin Movement VI all by themselves before the strings join the melody.

Performers: Capella Istropolitana; Bohdan Warchal

Taken from Naxos 8.550109

Water Music: Suite No. 2 in D major, HWV 349

The Water Music, of which this is the second suite, has been performed both outdoors and indoors. The general mood of jauntiness and jollity can suit the outdoors (on a nice day!). After the Allegro, each movement is based on a particular dance form, giving it a different rhythm and overall feel. George I was very pleased with Handel’s music!

Performers: Capella Istropolitana; Bohdan Warchal

Taken from Naxos 8.550109

Zadok the Priest, HWV 258

Zadok the Priest is one of Handel’s anthems written for the coronation of George II in 1727 (Zadok was the priest who anointed King Solomon). It has been performed at every coronation of a British monarch since. This music has one of the most effective and thrilling introductions to a choir entry ever written: listen to the gently pulsating notes, against rising arpeggios in the violins, as it builds finally to ‘Zadok the Priest’ at 1:25!

Performers: Thomas Tallis Chamber Choir; Royal Academy Consort, Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.557003

Keyboard and Chamber Music

Keyboard Suite No. 1 in A major, HWV 426

Handel wrote his rich collection of keyboard suites for domestic use. In general they are not as well known as Bach’s keyboard works, but are masterpieces nonetheless. The suites chosen here are played on the piano but are often performed on the harpsichord instead, for which they were originally written.

Performers: Philip Edward Fisher, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.572197

Keyboard Suite No. 2 in F major, HWV 427

Handel taught the three daughters of George II – Anne, Caroline and Louisa – and we know that they played some of these suites, so they must have been pretty good. The final movement of this fifth suite, nicknamed ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’ (and we don’t really know why – it wasn’t Handel’s name for it!), is quite famous: it is has a main theme, an air, and then there are variations on it – so you hear the theme in different ways, as if it’s dressing up!

Performers: Philip Edward Fisher, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.573397

Recorder Sonata in F major, Op. 1 No. 11, HWV 369

In Handel’s day, there were many professional recorder players. Here, the solo recorder is accompanied by cello and harpsichord.

Performers: László Czidra, recorder; Pál Keleman, cello; Zsuzsa Pertis, harpsichord

Taken from Naxos 8.550700

Violin Sonata in D major, Op. 1 No. 13, HWV 371

Although Handel is famous for his large-scale and grand works, he was a master miniaturist. His violin sonatas comprise short movements that convey an infectious sense of joy. This is the latest one he wrote.

Performers: Ensemble Vintage Koln

Taken from Naxos 8.572245


Rinaldo, HWV 7 (excerpts)

Rinaldo was the first opera in Italian to be written specifically for a London stage, being performed at the Queen’s Theatre in 1711. It is set at the time of the First Crusade (1095–1099), and it’s a story of love and war. The premiere had a lot of new effects and vivid scenery; the public loved it and the critics didn’t! Following Rinaldo Handel wrote many operas, dominating the opera scene in England. The soprano aria ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ (‘Let me weep over my cruel fate’) has become a favourite and is often sung separately in concerts.

Performers: Laura Whalen, Almirena (soprano); Aradia Ensemble; Kevin Mallon

Taken from Naxos 8.660165-67