Georg Friedrich Händel. A trip across Eighteenth century Europe


Balthasar Denner, “Portrait of Georg Friedrich Händel ” (1728), oil on canvas, 74.9 x 62.6 cm,
National Portrait Gallery, London


Happiness and sadness are the dominant emotions in the Eighteenth century. Happiness of a renewed freedom of expression, and sadness of not finding a real horizon for this freedom. We recognise these basic emotions in the several artistic events of this period and particularly in music. But what music identifies the Eighteenth century? A question that is not so obvious. The answer is to be found within that very rich cauldron called ‘Baroque music’, which encompasses several generations of artists, bonded by elaborate structures and a virtuosity of considerable emotional impact. The term is not quite right, however, since the true Baroque, at least in the figurative arts, developed in the Seventeenth – not the Eighteenth century – when the baton is passed to the Rococo. We are therefore a bit confused. In order to understand the Eighteenth century we need to limit the discourse and follow in the footsteps of a giant, named Georg Friedrich Händel, along his exciting life journey.



Bernardo Bellotto, “Dresden, A view of the old moat of the Zwinger from the Orangerie towards the city” (1752),
oil on canvas, 133 x 235 cm, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden



Händel was born in Halle – then called Halle an der Saale in full – on 23 February 1685. The German town, of Lutheran tradition, had been recently annexed to the Margraviate of Brandenburg, the core of the future Prussia, although it fell within the area historically known as Saxony. That is the reason why, during his trips, the composer, was nicknamed the ‘Saxon’, or rather, the ‘dear Saxon’, given his composed and polite personality. Händel’s father, already an old man, was a barber who served the court. At that time, this position was actually a sort of personal doctor, or at least a nurse. In short, a fairly eminent man who would have wanted a prestigious career as a magistrate for his son. The young man, however, driven by an insatiable passion for music, did not want to hear about the law. He managed to get some basic musical instruction and Friedrich Zachow, a well-known local organist, was his teacher until his father’s providential death. His talent was immediately noted, and so the boy began travelling early. First to nearby Leipzig and Dresden, and then Berlin, in 1702, where he impressed the well-cultured queen of Prussia Sofia Carlotta, and finally, to Hamburg, where he remained from 1703 to 1706.
All the places where he studied music are strongly imbued with culture and, unfortunately, all known for having been razed to the ground during the Second World War. If Dresden under Prince-elector Augustus the Strong was establishing itself as a true capital city of arts – so much so that it is often referred to as ‘Florence on the Elbe’ -, even the more ‘feeble’ Leipzig and Berlin were bustling cities. Hamburg, the northern metropolis, had already been the reference point for German music for some time. It was a modern, dynamic and cosmopolitan environment; in 1678, the first public opera house outside Italy was built there.
In this period Händel met some of the most important German composers of the time, such as old legend Dietrich Buxtehude and young rising star Georg Philipp Telemann, and they became good friends. It was Telemann who introduced him to the opera repertoire, which became Händel’s strong suit further on. Along his career, in fact, he composed over 40 operas, something that would make our Giuseppe Verdi green with envy. Albeit in an acerbic way, his fresh and sumptuous style is already perceptible in Almira (1705), his first opera, and for instance, in the aria Proverai di che fiere saette.
Some disagreements with the other composers present in the Hanseatic city, the fluctuating fate of his first compositions and, above all, the need to enhance his musical skills, prompted Händel to leave Germany and embark on a journey that changed his life.



Francesco Guardi, “Piazza San Marco towards the Basilica” (1765), oil on canvas, 72.5 x 119 cm,
National Gallery, London



Hamburg was a sparkling city, there is no doubt about that. But Italy was something else. The Belpaese, as Italy is known, has always been an essential reference for every artistic event. At that time, it was undergoing its last, roaring season as a protagonist. In 1706 Händel travelled to Italy probably at the invitation of a Florentine nobleman he had met in Hamburg, namely Gian Gastone, Grand Duke of Tuscany, the last member of the prestigious Medici family. However, he lived in Florence for a couple of months only, and chose Rome as the city where to settle, attracted by its particularly stimulating environment and the strange mixture of the sacred and the profane. Even if some time before Pope Innocent XI had banned the opera, liveliness oozed from every other artistic expression, and the city already showed that ‘living room’ aspect that it would keep until the times of David and Goethe. In the Eternal City, the ‘dear Saxon’ very soon started to be known as an unsurpassed organ player, and met the best-known Italian composers of the time, such as Alessandro Scarlatti and Arcangelo Corelli. These teachers were of paramount importance in Händel’s education, especially in the vocal field, which helped to add richness, variety and flexibility to his style. He also attended the literary Accademia dellArcadia, shared their classicist ideals, and maintained fruitful relationships with illustrious patrons, from Marquis Francesco Maria Ruspoli to cardinals Carlo Colonna, Benedetto Pamphilj and Pietro Ottoboni. In particular, he stood out in the composition of numerous cantatas – legend has it they were over a hundred – mostly on mythological-literary subjects. We can mention, for instance, Aminta e Fillide (1708) and its joyful closing duet Per abbatter il rigore dun crudel. He also composed oratorios, often interpreted as ‘equivalents’ to operas. Let’s see for instance The Resurrection (1708): it was a scandal because the role of Mary Magdalene was sung by a woman. After a formal admonition by Pope Clement XI, the role was assigned, as usual, to a castrato.
After a few months in Naples, another city of great musical wealth, which would soon produce great talents like Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Giovanni Paisiello and Domenico Cimarosa, the ‘dear Saxon’ headed for Venice, the most important opera and theatre centre of the world. The lagoon city, home of masters such as Tomaso Albinoni, Benedetto Marcello and, above all, Antonio Vivaldi, represented the culmination of both wealth and decadence of Eighteenth-century Italy. As Venice’s political power was declining, it was then regarded not only as the capital city of arts but also the Mecca of unbridled lust and gambling. It was precisely here where Händel enjoyed resounding success with the opera called Agrippina (1709), which ran for 27 nights successively, sold out. From that opera, we mention, by way of example, the famous aria Lalma mia fra le tempeste. Having reached his pinnacle, Händel understood that now he could take flight.



Giovanni Antonio Canal, commonly known as «Canaletto», London Seen Through an Arch of Westminster Bridge
(1747), oil on canvas, 57 x 95 cm, private collection



Händel was not a dissolute person; on the contrary, he is remembered as the quiet type. So, he could not feel at ease in the lagoon city. The possibility of moving to England – a dynamic, liberal country with great growth prospects – was facilitated by the good relationship with the prince-elector of Hanover, who would soon ascend to the English throne under the name of George I. Despite initial difficulties to be accepted by the more conservative circles, still attached to the name of the great local composer Henry Purcell, he was able to quickly earn such a great esteem that a statue was erected to honour him while he was still alive. The composer initially exploited the great popularity of Italian opera in England, and quickly churned out Rinaldo (1711), based on Gerusalemme Liberata by Italian poet Torquato Tasso. It contains Händel’s most poignant aria, Lascia chio pianga. Other successful operas and several instrumental compositions followed, the most famous of which are the three suites known as Water Music (1717). They were performed on board a barge over the Thames for the King and his guests, surrounded by a joyous and charming setting.
Apart from a few visits to the continent, Händel remained in England all his life. In 1727, after obtaining British citizenship, he was commissioned to write four anthems for the coronation of King George II. One of them, Zadok the Priest‘, embodies the essence of royalty to such an extent that it has been performed at every British coronation ceremony since then. Another solemn composition is the mournful Sarabanda for harpsichord (1733), part of the Suite No. 4 in D minor, best known for its powerful symphonic version used in Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon (1975).
The decline of the fashion for Italian opera in England prompted Händel to reinvent himself, to seek new paths. He did so in the oratorio genre: The Messiah was written in less than a month in the summer of 1741. It is not only Händel’s masterpiece: over time it has become the oratorio par excellence, set with the universally famous Hallelujah chorus, which, despite being reproduced in countless versions until today, it has never lost its inimitable greatness. Although it was received with enthusiasm in Ireland, the Messiah had a more tepid response in England, but was able to win over the English public over time. And Händel became a true rock star. At the general rehearsal of the Royal Fireworks Music (1749), composed to celebrate the end of the War of the Austrian Succession and that included spectacular fireworks, over ten thousand people rushed into a frenzy, causing traffic jams and riots. Yet fame did not alter the gentle composure Händel was famous for. A man of great firmness, sometimes too much, he harshly reproached King George II for arriving late to one of his concerts. We know that he engaged in charity work as soon as he could, collected paintings, and easily indulged in the temptations of gluttony. Unfortunately, the painful serious injuries following a carriage accident and the onset of blindness forced him to spend the last years of his life unhappily, until he died in London in 1759.



For Beethoven Händel was the greatest of all times. This seems to be a bit too much, especially if we think about another giant and peer, a certain Johann Sebastian Bach. We know that they respected each other, even if they never met in person. The key to solve this dilemma is not to compare them, taking into account the profound difference between the two composers: Bach remained in his homeland practically all his life, devoted himself to his family and numerous children, and was not very famous while he was alive. Händel, on the contrary, was a man of the world, who travelled extensively, became very famous, never married, and devoted his whole life to music alone. Their field of action is also different: Bach expresses what is ‘transcendental’ in music, in a total sense, timeless, whereas Händel represents what is ‘inherent’, rooted in his time. To use a movie metaphor, we can imagine Bach’s music as a black and white film by Ingmar Bergman, whereas Händel’s music would be a modern colour film, almost like Alberto Sordi’s Smoke Over London, in which we find full joy mixed with inner sadness.



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