Georg Friedrich Handel (1685-1759)


This great composer who wrote some of the most recognisable music for royal occasions in Britain, was actually born in Germany. His father wanted him to become a lawyer and instruments were banned in the house, but a duke convinced his father to give Handel a musical education. Handel composed in Halle, Hamburg and Italy, but his really famous stuff was composed in London. He was employed by the Elector of Hanover in 1710, but then Handel moved to London in 1712. Seeing the opportunities London provided, particularly in composing Italian opera, Handel didn’t want to return to Hanover. As it turned out, he didn’t have to. In 1714 Britain gained a new King, George I, who also just happened to be the Elector of Hanover. In 1727 Handel became a naturalised British citizen allowing him to compose for royal occasions. His music is now a key component in British musical culture.

The two greatest composers of the Baroque period are Bach and Handel. They were born 80 miles and about 4 weeks from one another, and yet they never met. I tend to wonder what they would have said to one another if they had. Both were brought up in the Lutheran tradition, but whereas Bach wrote for the church, Handel was an opera composer who wrote for audiences. That said, Handel went onto write oratorios, much like Bach, but again, these were written for paying audiences.

Handel was a celebrity composer in England, extremely famous and well celebrated during his lifetime in a way Bach never was. Like his contemporary, Handel was heavily influenced by the Italian compositional style which he took and made his own. In London Italian opera was the way to prosperity, so Handel churned out 42 of them. Soon enough, however, opera fell out of fashion and wasn’t making him money anymore. In the end, his opera company, into which he poured so much of his money, went bankrupt. So, forever the pragmatist, he turned his attention to oratorios, writing 29 of those.  Along with that are 120 cantatas, and various other orchestras suites, overtures, concerto grossi and concertos.


  1. Zadok the Priest

Don’t know who the performers are unfortunately.

If you’ve seen the UEFA Champions League, then you’ve heard this piece. Not originally written for UEFA – surprise surprise – it was actually written for King George II’s coronation in 1727, the year in which he got his citizenship. Zadok the Priest is one of four coronation anthems, which have been played at every coronation since. This is the first performance I remember YouTubing, and the one I still go back to. Loud, joyful, uplifting and endlessly exciting. Bloody wonderful.


  1. Water Music

Cond: Herve Niquet. Orch: Le Concert Spirituel.

One of the fist royal commission Handel got was this. King George I wanted music to accompany the royal barge as it sailed down the Thames in 1717. Like Zadok the Priest, which was also performed outside, the Water Music is scored for a huge orchestra to makre sure the sound would carry. Though 50 doesn’t sound like a big number for an orchestra today, back in 1717, it was basically unheard of. 3 separate suites make up the Water Music, with the first one being the most famous. The King liked it so much, he had the musicians play the entire thing 3 times! Admittedly, I had never heard of the Water Music until I listened to the Proms concert linked below. It was the number of instruments, which I thought was really odd, because there’s so many of them, that got my attention. The period instruments they play on, which apart from making an incredible sound very different to modern orchestras, are quite a visual spectacle.


  1. Giulio Cesare

Cond: William Christie. Orch: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Chorus: Glyndebourne Chorus.

Handel was a major opera composer. That’s how he became rich and famous. Of the 42 he wrote, the most famous is this one, based on the story of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. It had all the ingredients that made Italian opera so popular at the time; rousing arias, plots, counter plots, the inevitable triumph of the hero and a happy ending. It was a great success and remains one of today’s most performed baroque operas. Whilst there are recordings on YouTube, if you want a version to watch, then go for this one.

If you just want to listen to it, then go for this one, conducted by Alan Curtis and performed by Il Complesso Barocco: Period instruments are used in both.


  1. Minuet in G arr. Wilhelm Kempff

Pianist: Khatia Buniatishvili

I was going to include the Sarabande here, which is far more well known than the Minuet and one of those Handel pieces that everyone knows. But I thought to move away from orchestras and operas for a bit, and include some piano music instead. I’ll include a link to the Sarabande right at the end. This Minuet is the last movement from his Harpsichord Suite in B flat major HWV 434 published in 1733 and probably written before that. The version liked below is not the original, but an arrangement made by the pianist Wilhelm Kempff.

For the original skip to 6:52: Pianist: Andras Schiff.


  1. Handel: Messiah

Cond: Colin Davis. Orch: London Symphony Orchestra. Chorus: Tenebrae Choir. Soloists: Susan Gritton (soprano), Sara Mingardo (alto), Mark Padmore (tenor), Alastair Miles (bass).

The one that has the Hallelujah Chorus in it! Handel wrote 29 oratorios, and of them Messiah is the most famous and performed every Christmas across the country. But it wasn’t actually written for Christmas, but for Easter which is when it had its premiere in 1742. Handel’s opera stars often led lives as dramatic as the operas themselves. And with opera falling out of fashion, Handel attracted a lot of criticism. As he approached middle age, and put on weight, satirists and cartoonists depicted him as greedy, fat and selfish. Literally, a pig in a wig.


The proceeds from the first performance of Messiah were donated to the Foundling Hospital, a charity that looked after orphaned children. Benefit concerts were held annually after that, with Messiah performed at everyone, a tradition that ended in the 1770s. Upon his death, Handel donated a considerable amount of his estate to his chosen charity, the Foundling Hospital. These actions paint a very different picture those pedalled by his critics. The rousing and uplifting Hallelujah Chorus is the part everyone knows, found right in the middle of the work. It may well be the most famous thing he ever wrote. If you don’t fancy listening to the whole thing, and at nearly three hours I don’t blame you, then take a look at these bits.

  • Overture: 3:45
  • Ev’ry valley shall be exalted (tenor): 10:42.
  • For unto us a child is born (chorus): 36:57
  • Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion (soprano): 47:54
  • Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried out sorrows (chorus): 1:15:05
  • Hallelujah (chorus) 1:54:38




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