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George F. Handel and his Organ Concerti

George Frideric (German: Georg Friedrich) Handel (February 23, 1685–April 14, 1759) was a German-born British Baroque composer famous for his operas, oratorios, anthems and organ concertos. Born in 1685 in Halle, Duchy of Magdeburg, on Saale river in Thuringia, Germany on February 23rd to Georg Händel and Dorothea Taust, he discovered such a strong propensity to music, that his father, an eminent barber-surgeon who served the court of Saxe-Weissenfels and the Margraviate of Brandenburg and always intended his son for the study of the Civil Law, had reason to be alarmed. His father was 63 when George Frideric was born. At an early age Handel became a skilful performer on the harpsichord and pipe organ. Handel and his father travelled to Weissenfels to visit either Handel’s half-brother, Carl, or nephew, Georg Christian, who was serving as valet to Duke Johann Adolf I. On this trip, young Handel was lifted onto an organ’s stool, where he surprised everyone with his playing. This performance helped Handel and the duke to convince his father to allow him to take lessons in musical composition and keyboard technique from Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, the organist of Halle’s Marienkirche. In 1698 Handel played for Frederick I of Prussia.

In 1702, following his father’s wishes, Handel started studying law under Christian Thomasius at the University of Halle but also earned an appointment for one year as the organist in the former cathedral, by then an evangelical reformed church. At the age of 18, in 1703, he traveled to Hamburg and accepted a position as violinist and harpsichordist in the orchestra of the Hamburg Oper am Gänsemarkt. There he met the composers Johann Mattheson, Christoph Graupner and Reinhard Keiser. His first two operas, Almira and Nero, were produced in 1705. In 1706 Handel travelled to Italy at the invitation Gian Gastone de’ Medici, whom Handel had met in 1703–1704 in Hamburg visiting Florence, Naples and Venice.. In Italy Handel met librettist Antonio Salvi, with whom he later collaborated. Handel left for Rome where Marquis (later Prince) Francesco Ruspoli employed him as a household musician and where most of Handel’s major Italian works were composed. Since opera was (temporarily) banned in the Papal States, he composed sacred music for the Roman clergy. His famous Dixit Dominus (1707) is from this era. Rodrigo, his first all-Italian opera, was produced in the Cocomero theatre in Florence in 1707. He produced two other operas, Daphne and Florindo, in 1708. It is unclear whether Handel directed these performances. He also composed cantatas in pastoral style for musical gatherings in the palaces of cardinals Pietro Ottoboni, Benedetto Pamphili and Carlo Colonna. Two oratorios, La Resurrezione and Il Trionfo del Tempo, were produced in a private setting for Ruspoli and Ottoboni in 1709 and 1710, respectively. Agrippina was first produced in 1709 at Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo.

In 1710, Handel became Kapellmeister to German prince Georg Louis, the Elector of Hanover, who in 1714 would become King George I of Great Britain and Ireland and immediately packed him off on a twelve months’ leave of absence to visit England where he was favorably received at Queen Anne’s court. He visited Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici and her husband in Düsseldorf on his way to London in 1710. With his opera Rinaldo, Handel enjoyed great success. In 1712, Handel decided to settle permanently in England. He received a yearly income of £200 from Queen Anne after composing for her the Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate, first performed in 1713. One of his most important patrons was The 3rd Earl of Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork, a young and incredibly wealthy member of an Anglo-Irish aristocratic family. For the young Lord Burlington, Handel wrote Amadigi di Gaula, a magical opera, about a damsel in distress, based on the tragedy by Antoine Houdar de la Motte.In July 1717 Handel’s Water Music was performed more than three times on the Thames for the King and his guests.

In 1717 Handel became house composer at Cannons in Middlesex, where he laid the cornerstone for his future choral compositions in the twelve Chandos Anthems. Another work he wrote for The 1st Duke of Chandos, the owner of Cannons, was Acis and Galatea. During Handel’s lifetime it was his most performed work. Over the next two years (1717-18) Handel composed eleven anthems, a Te Deum, and two masques. In May 1719, The 1st Duke of Newcastle, the Lord Chamberlain, ordered Handel to look for new singers. Handel travelled to Dresden to attend the newly built opera and engaged the cast for the Royal Academy of Music, founded by a group of aristocrats to assure themselves a constant supply of baroque opera or opera seria. During twelve months between 1724 and 1725, Handel wrote three outstanding and successful operas, Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano and Rodelinda. After composing Silete venti, he concentrated on opera and stopped writing cantatas. In 1727, shortly before the death of George I, Handel became a British subject. Also in 1727 Handel was commissioned to write four anthems for the Coronation ceremony of King George II. One of these, Zadok the Priest, has been played at every British coronation ceremony since. In 1729 Handel became joint manager of the Queen’s Theatre at the Haymarket (now Her Majesty’s Theatre. Handel travelled to Italy to engage seven new singers. He composed seven more operas, but the public came to hear the singers rather than the music.

After two commercially successful English oratorios Esther and Deborah, Handel in 1734 directed a wedding anthem This is the day which the Lord hath made, and a serenata Parnasso in Festa for Anne of Hanover and started a new opera company at Covent Garden Theatre.in cooperation with John Rich who suggested that Handel use his small chorus and introduce the dancing of Marie Sallé, for whom Handel composed Terpsichore. In 1735 he introduced organ concertos between the acts. Financially,his Ariodante was a failure. Alcina, his last opera with a magic content, and Alexander’s Feast or the Power of Music based on John Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast starred Anna Maria Strada del Pò and John Beard. In April 1737, at age 52, Handel apparently suffered a stroke or some injury which seriously disabled the use of four fingers on his right hand, preventing him from performing, but he recovered remarkably quickly. To aid his recovery, Handel had travelled to Aachen, a spa in Germany. During six weeks he took long hot baths, and ended up playing the organ for a surprised audience. Deidamia, his last opera, was performed three times. Handel gave up the opera business, while he enjoyed more success with his English oratorios.

Saul and Israel in Egypt both from 1739 head the list of Handel’s great, mature oratorios. The Concerti Grossi Op 6 were composed during the autumn of 1739, and published in April 1740. During the summer of 1741, The 3rd Duke of Devonshire invited Handel to Dublin, capital of the Kingdom of Ireland, to give concerts for the benefit of local hospitals. His Messiah on a biblical libretto devised by Jennens was first performed at the New Music Hall in Fishamble Street on April 13, 1742, with 26 boys and five men from the combined choirs of St. Patrick’s and Christ Church cathedrals participating. In 1743 Handel suffered another stroke in April. However he was only temporarily indisposed and soon amazed everyone by the steady stream of large-scale works, mainly oratorios, which he continued to produce. In 1747 Handel wrote his oratorio Alexander Balus. This work was produced at Covent Garden Theatre, on March 23, 1748. The use of English soloists reached its height at the first performance of Samson. In 1749 Handel composed Music for the Royal Fireworks to accompany the festivities at Green Park in celebration of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle; 12,000 people attended the first performance. In 1750 he arranged a performance of Messiah to benefit the Foundling Hospital. The performance was considered a great success and was followed by annual concerts that continued throughout his life. In recognition of his patronage, Handel was made a governor of the Hospital the day after his initial concert.

In August 1750, on a journey back from Germany to London, Handel was seriously injured in a carriage accident between The Hague and Haarlem in the Netherlands. In 1751 one eye started to fail. The cause was a cataract. His Jephtha was first performed on February 26, 1752; even though it was his last oratorio, it was no less a masterpiece than his earlier works. Even when total blindness came in 1752 he continued to perform organ concertos and voluntaries between the parts of his oratorios, so great were his memory and powers of improvisation. Remaining involved in the arrangements for performances of his works up to his death, he died eight years later in on April 14th, 1759 at his home in Brook Street, at age 74, having lived in England for almost fifty years, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Handel’s compositions include 42 operas, 29 oratorios, more than 120 cantatas, trios and duets, numerous arias, chamber music, a large number of ecumenical pieces, odes and serenatas, the Opus 3 and Opus 6 concerti grossi; and 16 organ concerti. His most famous work, the oratorio Messiah with its “Hallelujah” chorus, is among the most popular works in choral music. Also notable are his sixteen keyboard suites, especially The Harmonious Blacksmith.

My collection contains the following works by Handel.

Concerto Grosso in BM, op. 3, no. 1.
Concerto Grosso in BM, op. 3, no. 2.
Concerto Grosso in GM, op. 3, no. 3.
Concerto Grosso in FM, op. 3, no. 4.
Concerto Grosso in dm, op. 3, no. 5.
Concerto Grosso in DM, op. 3, no. 6.
Concerto Grosso in CM, op. 3, no. 7, Alexander’s Feast (1736).
Concerto Grosso in GM, op. 6, no. 1.
Concerto Grosso in FM, op. 6, no. 2.
Concerto Grosso in em, op. 6, no. 3.
Concerto Grosso in am, op. 6, no. 4.
Concerto Grosso in DM, op. 6, no. 5.
Concerto Grosso in gm, op. 6, no. 6.
Concerto Grosso in BbM, op. 6, no. 7.
Concerto Grosso in cm, op. 6, no. 8.
Concerto Grosso in FM, op. 6, no. 9.
Concerto Grosso in dm, op. 6, no. 10.
Concerto Grosso in AM, op. 6, no. 11.
Concerto Grosso in bm, op. 6, no. 12.
(Organ) Concerto for Organ and Strings No. 1 in gm, op. 4, no. 1, HWV 289.
(Organ) Concerto for Organ and Strings No. 2 in BbM, op. 4, no. 2, HWV 290.
(Organ) Concerto for Organ and Strings No. 3 in gm, op. 4, no. 3, HWV 291.
(Organ) Concerto for Organ and Strings No. 4 in FM, op. 4, no. 4, HWV 292.
(Organ) Concerto for Organ and Strings No. 5 in FM, op. 4, no. 5, HWV 293.
(Organ) Concerto for Organ and Orchestra, op. 4, no. 6.
(Harp) Concerto in BbM for Harp and Orchestra, op. 4, no. 6, HWV 294.
(Organ) Concerto for Organ and Strings No. 7 in BbM, op. 7, no. 1, HWV 306.
(Organ) Concerto for Organ and Strings No. 8 in AM, op. 7, no. 2, HWV 307.
(Organ) Concerto for Organ and Strings No. 9 in BbM, op. 7, no. 3, HWV 308.
(Organ) Concerto for Organ and Strings No. 10 in dm, op. 7, no. 4, HWV 309.
(Organ) Concerto for Organ and Strings No. 11 in gm, op. 7, no. 5, HWV 310.
(Organ) Concerto for Organ and Strings No. 12 in BbM, op. 7, no. 6, HWV 311.
(Organ) Concerto for Organ and Strings No. 12 in FM, HWV 295, The Cuckoo and the Nightingale.
(Organ) Concerto for Organ and Strings No. 13 in AM, HWV 296.
(Organ) Concerto for Organ and Strings No. 14 in dm, HWV 304.
Judas Maccabaeus: See, the Conquering Hero Comes (March).
Messiah, HWV 56 (1741).
Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749).
Ode for St. Cecelia’s Day: Minuet.
Solomon: Sinfonia to Act 3, Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.
Suite No. 11 for Harpsichord: Sarabande.
Water Music: Suites No. 1 in FM, No. 2 in DM, and No. 3 in GM.
Xerxes: Ombra mai fu or Largo.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources


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