He's one of history's most famous composers, but how much do you really know about Handel? Join us to learn about his life, music, and desire for fame; plus 3 things about him you didn't know before!
The famous "Ombra mai fu" or Largo from Serse
An earlier work of Handel's composed in Italy, La resurrezione
This one has some difficult writing for the oboe, especially for the time in the early 1700s!
John Banther: I'm John Banther, and this is Classical Breakdown. From WETA Classical in Washington, we are your guide to classical music. In this episode, I'm joined by WETA Classical's Evan Keely to talk all about the life and music of one of the most famous composers of all time, George Frideric Handel.
We dispel a myth or two about his early life, explore what made him so popular and why he became such a favorite for composers like Mozart and Beethoven. Plus, stay with us to the end as we have three things to tell you about Handel you probably didn't Know.
Handel is one of those composers, Evan, that I actually forget I really like because it's just about every week I have to focus my attention on different composers or music or time periods. Then I hear some of Handel's music and I remember how much I like it.
Evan Keely: And there's so much of it. Astonishingly prolific composer, and so much of his music is just so fantastic.
John Banther: It is. In this episode, we'll explore his life, how he became one of the most celebrated living composers, and we have three things that you probably did not know about him, plus some music recommendations too.
The first thing you probably did not know is that he was born in 1685. Maybe you knew that, but maybe you didn't know that he was born the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach, which is fascinating because they're both born the same year, pretty close to each other too, and together became emblematic of the entire Baroque period, yet they never even met. That's just so crazy.
Evan Keely: Handel traveled around quite a bit. Bach of course did not. Much more of a provincial composer in his time. There's some reason to believe Bach wanted to go and meet Handel but somehow it would never materialized. Could you imagine the two of them sitting down and having a beer and talking about music? I mean, just to be a fly on the wall. But it never happened.
John Banther: There's some differences in their music we might mention along the way too. One of which I think is just the dramatism that Handel brings to the table often with means of economy. There's some quotes of Beethoven and Mozart. Beethoven said, " The master of us all, the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb." He also said, " Go to him to learn how to achieve great effects by such simple means." And I like that. Great effects, and he does it with such simple means.
Evan Keely: There's a story that Beethoven, that lying on his deathbed, there was a shelf with the collected works of Handel on the bookshelf, and he pointed to it and said, " There lies the truth." Whether or not that actually happened, we do know for certain Beethoven really admired, loved Handel's music.
John Banther: I think I'll do that myself. I'll say the same thing, but inside the book will be empty or something. I'll leave a bigger mystery. Mozart allegedly said, " Handel understands affect better than any of us. When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt."
I love that as well. I think a modern non- musical comparison, Evan, might be Johann Sebastian Bach would be Steve Wozniak and Handel would be Steve Jobs. They're both geniuses. Bach lives that humble provincial life. You mentioned more secluded, doesn't travel much. Handel, he seeks fame and fortune, and he wanted to do it his own way.
Evan Keely: It's incredible to us today to recognize that Bach, JS Bach as a composer wasn't really well recognized in his time. Handel, on the other hand, was an international superstar.
John Banther: Absolutely. Tell us, Evan, a little bit about his early life, his birth and family.
Evan Keely: Well, we think of Handel as an English composer because he lived in England so much of his life. But of course, he's actually German, and this is in the era when Germany is a region rather than a nation. But he was born in the Saxony region of Germany, 1685. Georg Friedrich Handel as his German name as he was born. His father was a barber- surgeon and served various persons of high social rank.
Handel from the beginning of his life was exposed to social circles of very wealthy and powerful and influential people while not being directly a part of that milieu. And you see this tension throughout his life where he's not one of the aristocrats of society, but he's certainly connected to that world.
We don't know a whole lot about his early life. There are various stories about his early life which are maybe untrue. John Mainwaring was the first biographer of Handel, wrote a biography of Handel. The late 18th Century I think was the year.
There's lots of fanciful stories in that biography which we now think are probably untrue. One of the most memorable of which is that Handel as a boy was very interested in music and his father was adamantly opposed to his son becoming a musician. And so young George Frideric Handel had to go hide up in the attic where there was a keyboard instrument and he would clandestinely play the instrument and teach himself about music. We now think that's probably not a true story. His father may have had some ambivalence about his son getting into music, but did support his musical studies to some extent. And we see the result.
There's no doubt Handel had to face some challenges growing up in the situation that he was in and wanting to be a musician, but clearly he figured out how to overcome them.
John Banther: Definitely. That story, it sounds so great, Handel this little boy saves up money, gets this keyboard into the attic, practices at night while everyone's asleep. Of course, it sounds crazy. I mean, these houses back then, they were probably built quite well. A lot of them still stand I think. But I mean, come on, you're playing a harpsichord instrument and your attic. Everyone's going to wake up.
So then when he's around age 10, he starts to study with the only teacher that we know of, Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow. He gave Handel a strong foundation in counterpoint, fugues, and canons, really the basis of the Baroque period. And he had him study other composers in a way that I think still continues. That is just copying out scores of other composers, specifically one Johann Krieger who I didn't know at all, but who wrote some really nice music. This is great because you're writing it all out and you're seeing it in a more close personal way how all the music and lines and everything kind of fits together.
It sounds like then Handel was able to start filling in for his teacher for church services playing the organ and allegedly writing music too. We don't have any examples or real records of these early sacred works. But a description from another composer, Johann Mattheson said, " Handel in those days set very, very long arias and sheerly unending cantatas, which while not possessing the proper knack or correct taste, were perfect so far as harmonies concern."
I think this is fun. He's writing arias and cantatas that are just too long, I can imagine just really stretching things out thinking he's doing something. But I also like that this is the same composer I think that got into a street brawl with Handel decades later. They got into a straight up altercation.
Evan Keely: Mattheson, another fine composer of that era, not as well remembered as I think he should be. The story is uncertain, but one version of the story is they got into a duel and that Mattheson aimed his sword at Handel's bosom, and a button on Handel's cloak happened to deflect the sword, and he would've died otherwise. Again, this is maybe one of those romantic stories that may or may not be true. They clearly had some tensions between them, but when they weren't fighting, they admired one another very much.
John Banther: I like that. They did admire each other. Maybe they got in a fight and got over it. But even still, imagine pulling a sword on someone and then still saying, " Hey, his harmony is fantastic."
Evan Keely: Well, Handel of course, composing from an early age, again, we don't have a lot of evidence of what he composed as a young person, but there is reason to believe that these copying exercises that he did as a teenager and as a boy, there's reason to believe he carried that book with him for the rest of his life, that he hung onto those copies. That exercise of copying other composers' work was so important to him that he retained the physical evidence. And he clearly retained it in his intellect.
John Banther: One of the early works that we know of his, a setting of Laudate pueri Dominum, they think it's around 1701. He's probably 15, 16 around there when he may have written this. And I really like this. There's a particular moment I love in the first section of this. It's very fast and rhythmic, lots of eighth notes and sixteenth notes.
It's driving forward and a singer is doing the same, but then he has the singer pop up to this higher note and it's a little longer than you expect and then it gives the opportunity to settle on it briefly before jumping and continuing into the next phrase. I think this is that affect quality Mozart was talking about. He's doing so much and then he captivates us for a moment with just this subtle change.
Evan Keely: This is one of the aspects I think of Handel's music, that he's able to do these things which are simultaneously surprising and yet seem somehow indispensable. The thing that you least expect happens, and then you feel like, well that was the only thing that could have happened.
John Banther: Yes.
Evan Keely: He's able to maintain this sense of fascination that he brings to our experience by constantly beguiling us with these wonderful little surprises and these twists. He's writing mostly in a very conventional style. He's writing in the style that other composers in Western Europe were writing in at this time, and yet he's able to infuse it with these wonderful little astonishing qualities that just keep us drawn to his music.
John Banther: In 1697, Handel's father dies and then he enrolls at the university in Halle, correct? That's where he's in close proximity to Leipzig and he meets another big composer from this time period, Georg Philipp Telemann. It's interesting because they met once, and I assume this kind of happened a lot back hundreds of years ago, they met once, but then were great friends and corresponded through the mail for the rest of their lives, sending scores, giving advice, and even gifts. Handel sent Telemann hard to find plants when Telemann got into gardening later in life. Makes you wonder, what would he have sent Bach if they had met?
Evan Keely: Oh, if only we knew. But Handel and Telemann both great composers and they both understood each other's genius I think.
John Banther: Tell us about his first opera then, Almira, because as we'll discover like Mozart, we enjoy a lot of his instrumental music, but he really achieved fame and success in the opera world.
Evan Keely: This is a thing that's a goal for Handel through this sort of first portion of his adult life. He's writing instrumental music, he's writing orchestral music, he's writing keyboard music, he's writing cantatas, but what he really wants to do is be successful as an opera composer. There's probably a number of reasons for that. A successful opera was very lucrative. If you have a popular set of keyboard pieces that are selling well, that's great, but if you can sell opera performances, you can really make a fortune.
Much like today, if you're a composer, if you really want to make a lot of money, you want to have a big hit on Broadway for instance. So analogous to that, Handel wants to be successful as an opera composer. But I think more than just the commercial aspects of it, more than just wanting to make money, he I think really was drawn to the operatic stage because of the dramatic propensities of his creativity. He really is able to paint a picture of a scene in his music. Even if it's like a solo keyboard work, there's a sense of drama and struggle in so much of his music. And what better place to show those talents, to showcase those capabilities of his as a composer than on the opera operatic stage.
And of course, opera in the early 18th century throughout Europe with the I think notable exception of the French, people that want to hear opera are mostly interested in Italian opera. The Italian opera still has that prestige throughout the world. Even audiences that don't know the Italian language want to hear Italian opera, not only because of the language but because of the styles of Italian opera. And of course, opera at this point is about 100 years old as an art form, which is really still pretty new in a way. And there's still innovations that are being developed. Handel is really interested in exploring this medium and what he can do with it creatively.
John Banther: I love hearing your description of all this because it also reminds me of, as you said, opera is basically, it's like 100 years old, and back then things are changing really slow. It reminds me of film almost. It must have been a really exciting time for opera in that it was new, almost felt like Hollywood- esque. The biggest names, the biggest stars, they were all in involved in this.
So it seems natural that he went to what might have been like the Hollywood of opera as you were talking about Italian opera. He goes to Italy himself in 1706. Again, more information we don't know. We don't know who invited him to Italy. I imagine he didn't just show up on his own with a suitcase getting off a bus like he's in New York City to make it as a star.
Evan Keely: Yeah, there's reason to believe that someone in the Medici family invited him. We're not sure which person in the family. Different accounts have different speculations about that. But like you say, he didn't just go on his own. Someone clearly was aware of him. Even here he is 1706, he's maybe 20, 21 years old, still just getting started, but clearly a talent that people are paying attention to.
He goes to various places in Italy. He spends some time in Florence and in Rome, he goes to Naples, he goes to Venice. You can really imagine the extraordinary music that he's able to be exposed to, both in terms of getting his hands on scores, but of course more importantly hearing performances and even meeting composers and exchanging ideas with them. And you can see the creative impact of this throughout the rest of his life.
John Banther: It seems like this was also a key aspect in him learning more about Dramatism because there was this ban on opera in Rome, in the Papal States. It was a decree from the Pope. At the time, the opera vacuum was seemingly filled with cantatas and oratorios. That is works for orchestra and chorus. There's singers, soloists, but no staging, no costumes, which would've been very, very elaborate. So it sounds like Handel is able to color within the lines and really learn rules, but really learn how to be dramatic in those ways, dramatic in those economic means.
Evan Keely: Right. When you don't have a visual like a stage or a costume, you have to convey drama all the more powerfully. Oratorio, very often sacred subjects in Oratorios, although not always, and a lot of these cantatas that Handel was writing at this time, we hear the word cantata in the Baroque, we often think of JS Bach, and those are liturgical cantatas or church music.
The cantatas Handel is writing in Italy are not that. They are a secular art form, usually a solo voice and a small instrumental ensemble. And very often the poetry that is being said is like a love poem or something full of emotion. So he's portraying these characters in these scenes, in these short cantatas that are full of drama and passion and he's developing his skill as a dramatist through this medium.
John Banther: One work that I highly recommend from this time period is La resurrezione, The Resurrection. It's an oratorio he wrote that is absolutely worth hearing. For me, it embodies a lot of the qualities I love in the Baroque period. It's bright, it's rich. The timbre is very, very colorful, very shiny aspects to it.
And he has just some virtuosic writing for the oboe. We learned in our what is an oboe episode just how rudimentary the instrument was at this time. He is writing very virtuosic lines for it. Wonder who was actually playing those because it was a bit of an outlier for his time. It would be I think a couple of decades before someone like Vivaldi was writing really difficult lines for the oboe. That's one I definitely recommend from this time.
His time in Italy comes to an end around 1710. He makes his way to England, but by way of Hanover, he's Kapellmeister there for not even a year. He gets there, and then basically as soon as he finishes not even a year, he just goes to London.
Evan Keely: Yeah. He goes back to Germany after his sojourn in Italy. We're not sure why he didn't want to stay there, but he gets the job as the Kapellmeister for the elector of Hanover, Prince George, which you think is a pretty prestigious gig. This is a high ranking aristocrat. Handel probably has access to a lot of really skilled musicians, but for reasons that are unclear, he only remains there not even a full year and then finds his way to London.
In London, he starts working more on this medium of Italian opera that he's so interested in with the first Italian language opera written for a British opera company, Rinaldo. Great success for Handel in 1711.
John Banther: And so this becomes a permanent settlement for Handel becoming an actual English citizen even a few decades later. He also starts to really realize the money that gets thrown around in London. You see this from a few other composers. Haydn for instance, goes to London, has a symphony played, and is remarking, they just gave me a ton of money. Handel gets 200 pounds a year for several years, which is roughly $ 37,000 or so today for a piece he wrote for Queen Anne. He got this yearly payment of that much money for just this one thing I think. That's a lot of, as you can say, money for old rope. But he lived in 25 Brook Street in London. And Evan, I did not know this until just now, who lived next door to Handel at 23 Brook Street?
Evan Keely: Well, of course he didn't live next door to Handel when Handel was there, but in the late 1960s, Jimi Hendrix lived at 23 Brook Street next door to where Handel had lived. Nowadays that building still exists, and the project is underway to open hopefully in the spring of 2023, the Handel Hendrix House will be a museum dedicated to exploring the lives of Jimi Hendrix and George Frideric Handel. And that sounds like a fascinating place.
John Banther: Imagine not knowing this and you see this house, Handel's house, and then I think the offices now are in the flat of Jimi Hendrix. You wonder, oh, where do I go to get the ticket or this? Oh yeah, go to Jimi Hendrix's old flat. What? Hendrix? I thought that was fascinating.
Evan Keely: Two great musicians that came to London and had a lasting impact on that city and on the world.
John Banther: Absolutely. He didn't write opera for several years in England, but he was remaining busy after that first one you mentioned for Reinaldo. A lot of music we love today, like water music, which was music played on this barge for the King going up the River Thames. Apparently he liked it so much, they were repeating it.
This is a piece that without the story, it almost seems like we might not like it as much, although it's an amazing piece of music. But this idea of all these musicians getting on a barge and playing this, I used to live on a barge, so I cannot imagine this happening without some level of calamity, someone falling over, an instrument falling, spray from the water. I mean, how do you keep your music on a stand in that?
Evan Keely: All you need is a little wave and your mouthpiece kind of bumps into you in a way that's quite uncomfortable or something like that. But somehow they managed to play in a way that really pleased the King. This is one of those wonderful stories, which unlike some of the other romantic tales about Handel is almost certainly true.
The King, King George I had been prior to being King of England, the elector of Hanover. This was the gig that Handel had when he left Germany, kind of skipped out of town and abandoned his old boss, Prince George. When Queen Anne died, she didn't have any legitimate issue, as they say, she didn't have any children. So they had to find some relative who was Protestant, who could succeed her. And the closest relative they had was her second cousin, Prince George, the elector of Hanover.
This guy who didn't even speak English came across the channel and became King George I. And then Handel is writing this music for this party on the Thames that King George I is throwing in 1717. He writes this music, the musicians play it, and the King says, " Wow, this music is so great. Let's hear it again and again and again. Who wrote this music?" And Handel comes forward. Apparently the King let bygones be bygones because he liked the music so much.
John Banther: I would be nervous if I was Handel. I mean, I'm just thinking, oh my gosh, what are the odds? I just quit on this guy. Now he's here and I have-
Evan Keely: Now he's the king.
John Banther: And I'm on a boat.
Evan Keely: Oops, burned up bridge. But apparently his talent was so spectacular, he was able to recover.
John Banther: Also, Music for Royal Fireworks, another one that would capture everyone's attention. Thousands of people saw the premiere. I think it caused like an hours or days long traffic jam on the London Bridge. Just imagine a traffic jam of days in the 1700s. That couldn't have been very enjoyable. And in fact, we may be talking about those two pieces on a future episode.
Evan, now Handel is getting more and more successful and he starts the Royal Academy of Music, not the school, but an opera company. And in fact, this would be one of three opera companies that he would write. Basically, I think he just kind of became a titan of industry. He wrote five operas, I think five or six before this. Then he would write 36 operas for English audiences.
Evan Keely: Yes, the Royal Academy of Music, despite the name, which makes it sound like it's some royal decree or something, it's actually a private business. It was created by aristocrats in London who had a taste for Italian opera. They wanted to create a new opera company that would be a venue that would provide Italian opera serie, serious Italian opera. And they had a composer like Handel on hand who was a part of that.
What we see with this venture, and it is a business venture, is that Handel is not only a very skilled composer of course, but he does have some savvy in terms of business. The Royal Academy of Music did have its ups and downs financially and administratively, but Handel was undeterred and he was able to create ventures like this or be part of enterprises like this that enabled him to continue to create these masterpieces.
John Banther: And presumably all part of his wanting to be in high society, rubbing shoulders with the big patrons, the dukes or whatever. He was still wanting to be in that circle.
That brings us to this next but related point. And that is a discovery made in 2013 by musicologist David Hunter. He was going through investments, looking at just records of things, and he found Handel's investments in the Royal African Company with quote, " Two pair of buy and sell orders in 1720, three of the four transactions signed by Handel." Now, the Royal African Company founded by the British Royal family was the biggest company if you did not know when it came to transporting enslaved people to the Americas.
Evan Keely: This is really a very disturbing thing for us to think about. We were talking about Handel wanting to be connected to the wealthy and powerful people in society. It's a reminder that art costs money. It's expensive to make art, especially if you're doing things like opera. It's a very expensive venture. And Handel wants to be connected to this world, which will make it possible for him to create this art that has enriched the world for centuries.
In what was he entangled in order to finance these things? Well, one of the things as we now know he invested in was the enslavement of human beings being forcibly repatriated out of Africa, which was big business in the 18th Century and very lucrative, unfortunately very lucrative business of this trafficking and human suffering.
It's just a very sobering reminder to us of the ways in which the various enterprises of human activity, whether they're artistic or otherwise, can very easily get entangled in things which are unethical. And it's a reminder to us that we should really be paying close attention to where the money is coming from for the things that we value.
John Banther: David Hunter also discovered that over 30% of the Royal Academy of Music investors were invested heavily in the RAC, including one of Handel's biggest patrons. And the abolitionist movement wouldn't really start for decades in England and Handel's views had they been different, would've been in quite an outlier in that society. We're going to put a link to the article from Musicology Now, which is what David Hunter wrote. We'll put that on the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org because there's more that he writes about it and it is something that I think people should be reading.
There's a quote from Jeannette Sorrell from a different article. She is the artistic director of the period instrument ensemble, Apollo's Fire. She's done a lot of work, and she is a great interpreter of Handel's music. She said, " We can take this news about Handel's investments and look into our own 401ks or whatever we each have. Many people are not paying that much attention to how their investments are specifically allocated. And if we find some of it is supporting fossil fuels, for example, that will affect the lives of billions of people in the next generation. So maybe this can inspire all of us to do something now today to make the planet a better place." We'll get into the second thing you probably did not know about Handel right after this.
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The second thing people might not know is that Handel's music, specifically his Coronation Anthem: Zadok the Priest, has been played at every single coronation since 1727. We're coming up on 300 years of that now Evan. Every single coronation, that's quite a streak.
Evan Keely: Yeah, I want to say that was the coronation of King George II. He wrote four of these coronation anthems. They're still part of the concert repertoire today. I've sung some of them when I was in high school or in college. They're wonderful, wonderful pieces, most of them multi movement pieces, but they're fairly short. They're like a short cantata words from scripture. We'll have a coronation in the UK sometime in the coming year as Charles III is officially coronated. And I am sure we will hear a Handel coronation anthem at that coronation as has been the case for, as you said, almost 300 years now.
John Banther: Maybe it's been going on for so long because some of these, especially Zadok the Priest, I mean, they're intense. They're very, very dramatic.
Evan Keely: Yes.
John Banther: It definitely displays an air of authority, I think.
Evan Keely: Yes, definitely adds an air of magnificence to the event. And again, there's so many examples of Handel's music surprising us with these virtuosic turns or astonishing twists of harmony or just the incredible dramatic power that Handel was able to infuse into his music.
John Banther: So he has these three opera companies. He's taking off in the world of opera. He writes 36 for these English audiences, becomes a superstar. One of the big ones it seems like we can talk about, Evan, is his opera Alcina that really showcases some of the things that we've been talking about, affect and just Dramatism.
Evan Keely: Alcina continues to be one of Handel's best loved operas, I think for good reasons. Opera houses to this very day still mount productions of it. It's a wonderful example of not only of the style of the period, but the ways in which Handel was able to really infuse it with something exceptional. Alcina, the title character, is this evil sorceress who lives on this magical island. She lures heroes there and seduces them. And then when she gets bored with her lovers, she turns them into animals.
It's this fantastical story full of sorcery and magic and so forth, really typical of opera and theater of the period, the early 18th Century. People liked these kinds of fantastical stories. A very gifted composer could infuse that with something really exciting, with lots of spectacular virtuosic music and audiences would enjoy it. Handel certainly does that.
But in addition to that, in addition to writing things that are just exciting and compelling and fun, he's also able to infuse the characters through his music with a psychological depth. Alcina, who is this evil sorceress, could just be this sort of cartoon villain and that might be really enjoyable for us to experience, but he actually gives her this depth. There's this one aria that she sings. It's a staple of the soprano repertoire, very dramatic aria. (foreign language) . Ah, my heart. You have been deceived. It's when she realizes that her lover is going to abandon her and she's heartbroken and she's full of sorrow, but then she expresses this intense rage.
Again, this could just be this sort of over the top fun, exciting kind of thing, which on some level it is, but what you really hear and Handel's incredible music is this real human sorrow and anger and fear that's conveyed with this extraordinary creativity and depth. He's really able to paint this very intricate psychological portrait through his music. We find this throughout Handel's music. Especially in the operas, he's able to create very rich characters with his music.
John Banther: But all good things come to an end sort of. There was an opera by John Gay in 1728, The Beggar's Opera, which was a satirization, a satirical opera on Italian opera. This is quite fascinating because when I first listened to this recently, I thought, okay, so it's satire, maybe something with the lyrics. I thought it might be more closer to Italian opera. It is straight up Saturday Night Live making fun of opera.
Speaker 3: I'm bringing it now on the stage.
Speaker 4: But I see it is time for us to withdraw. The actors are preparing to begin. Play away the overture.
Evan Keely: Yes, in a very bawdy kind of... It's not an elegant kind of satire, it's just having a raucous good time. It was very popular. Audiences really responded to this. It seems like a fascinating contradiction to us that Italian opera would be so popular and yet a satire of it would also be popular, maybe with some of the same people. Who knows?
John Banther: Also, I think John Gay was born the same year, 1685.
Evan Keely: Yes.
John Banther: That's also interesting.
Evan Keely: You see the competing trends in music. One of the things that's interesting about The Beggar's Opera is one of the things that it's making fun of is the da capo aria. This is a core element of Italian opera. You have an aria where there's a whole section and then there's a contrasting B section and then the A section is entirely repeated. Makes the staging of Italian operas from this period today quite a challenge because our aesthetic in the early 21st Century is so different. If you think of your favorite musical repeating an entire section of a number, it's just not how our brains are wired these days.
Well, The Beggar's Opera makes fun of this and the ways in which these things kind of go on doing the same thing over and over again. So Handel in some of his later works after this, tries to adopt this and fuse it into the realm of serious Italian opera and doesn't seem to have really made a success.
The opera Serse is an opera that came out of Handel's in 1738, 10 years after The Beggar's Opera. Audiences were really confused by it because you don't see a lot of these da capo arias in Serse. People are expecting, maybe they're expecting that in an Italian opera. Handel is trying to adopt the forms of the so- called ballad opera in that opera, which doesn't seem to have connected with audiences at the time.
Serse is now regarded as one of Handel's greatest achievements in opera. And one of his best known works is the very first aria. When the curtain goes up in the beginning of act one, the aria Ombra mai fu, this incredibly beautiful love song, it's actually the hero sitting under a tree and singing about how beautiful the tree is, very mundane and yet Handel infuses it with this absolutely extraordinary sublimity. It's such a popular tune, it became known for many generations simply as Handel's Largo. If you're of a certain generation, that phrase may sound familiar.
John Banther: Handel as we've seen is smart. He's a savvy composer, savvy businessman. But with this change in societal ideals or wants when it comes to Italian opera and that starts to fade for Handel, him being savvy, he turns back to what he was doing decades before, oratorio, that kind of music, the operatic dramatism without the stage setting and costumes, which were very elaborate.
One of which is Israel in Egypt. This is fascinating because he's depicting so directly in the music things like plagues, like flies, the Red Sea overwhelming the enemies. It's just so dramatic in the music. I mean, it almost feels Hollywood- esque the way it's all being played out.
Evan Keely: Handel's skill as a dramatist is quite evident even when there's no physical staging to showcase the drama. Of course, English oratorio was a new genre. Handel arguably might be the first composer to write an oratorio to an English language text. Interestingly enough, most of the oratorios, not all, but most of the oratorios of Handel are on sacred subjects. And Israel in Egypt in fact, like Messiah, actually takes its text from the scriptures. Many other oratorios that have a sacred subject are poetic paraphrases of stories from the Bible and so forth, like with Solomon for instance.
One of the reasons for this is that during the Lenten season, often opera was either put on hold or banned at various points in British history, so there needed to be a venue for people to enjoy dramatic music without actually going to the opera house. And so Handel, as you said, being the savvy businessman that he was, was able to fill that need.
John Banther: And Messiah, which anyone on the street, if you play it, they'll probably recognize the big Hallelujah chorus of course, this was actually the subject of episode number nine of Classical Breakdown. We really go into all of the details, and there's a lot when it comes to Messiah.
But he composed this in 1741. It premieres in 1742 in Dublin, as we know, as you said, there's a hold on opera for the theaters during Lent. It was a charity event in which he raised a lot of money for I believe a children's orphanage or the hospital. And this happened several times, even decades later. This music is being used at charity events and it is just one of his just undeniable biggest hit, if you can say that.
That takes us to the third thing you probably did not know about Handel, and that was in 1751, now up there in years, he undergoes eye surgery for a cataract. John Taylor is the person who we now refer to as a medical charlatan who operated on Handel, probably made his eyesight worse leading to his blindness.
This is something that happened reportedly to hundreds of people, but the whole point you probably didn't know is that this same " doctor" quote, unquote, operated on Johann Sebastian Bach, who died of those complications just a few months later. They never met, but they met the same doctor, unfortunately.
Evan Keely: Quack doctor. Yeah, Bach died in 1750 after one of these surgeries, possibly because the surgery made his condition worse. We're not sure, but we do know this John Taylor was definitely a fraud and mutilated a lot of people including Handel.
John Banther: Eight years later in 1759 at the age of 74, Handel dies at his home on Brook Street having lived this really this life of celebrity, the most famous composer I think alive at that point. He dies also wealthy as well, which I think is a juxtaposition compared to someone like JS Bach.
Evan Keely: We often say a genius is never appreciated in his own time, but it's really not very much applicable to Handel. He was a beloved figure and very much respected and admired as a composer and still is.
John Banther: If you've made it this far into a podcast about Handel, well, thank you. And you probably might like to hear some music that we recommend listening to. We're going to put a Spotify playlist on the show notes page. But one thing I do recommend, what we heard earlier, La resurrezione, but also really his organ concertos. I think they're really the first of their kind and easy to listen to and digest because they were meant to be played as interludes between bigger works that he would've been playing in theaters. So these were interludes.
I don't know, I think they're very, very interesting and they're not like big cathedral organ works. These are much, much smaller, but they're very, very nice to listen to. Do you have anything, Evan, for maybe something that people could listen out for that they may not know already?
Evan Keely: So many things, such a prolific composer. And anything you listen to by Handel is likely to be a thrill. I'm particularly attached to quite a few of the operas, including we mentioned Alcina earlier. Ariodante is another opera that I really love. Pretty much any Amadigi di Gaula. Pretty much any opera of Handel's is going to be exciting.
The Opus 6 and Opus 3 Concerti Grossi are wonderful orchestral works full of marvelous invention. I would also recommend the oratorio Solomon. The poetry is not that great, but again, Handel is able to rise above that telling very compelling stories with his incredible music.
John Banther: We'll have more information on those on the show notes page. Well, thank you so much, Evan, for joining me to talk all about Handel.
Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown, your guide to classical music. For more information about this episode, visit the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org. You can send episode ideas and questions to classicalbreakdown@ weta. org. And if you enjoyed this episode, leave a five star review in your podcast app and tell a friend. I'm John Banther. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical.