George Frideric Handel: Biography, Facts & Compositions

Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) is probably best remembered for his masterwork 'Messiah'. Trace his long career and learn more about his life and other great music by him.


George Frideric Handel was a musical entrepreneur who can best be characterized as persistent. During his long career he made and lost several fortunes. Why? What happened? How was he able to bounce back each time?

Part of Handel's career coincided with the 18th century Enlightenment - a period of history with a rising middle class that would eventually revolt against aristocratic rule. Traditionally, the ruling class patronized the arts. The new middle class, however, had the means to attend entertainment such as theater, opera, and concerts. Public tastes and interests changed quickly and became an important influence on composers and producers. No sooner would Handel capitalize on a trend when it would quickly fade.

Rising Career

Handel was born and schooled in Halle, Germany, where he absorbed the musical craft of his day. He played organ and violin, and also studied composition. In 1706, he went to Italy and wrote a number of works there before returning to Germany in 1710, where he was employed by the Elector of Hanover. The terms of his position were flexible and he was immediately granted a 12-month leave. This allowed him to travel to London where some of his music was already popular.

George F. Handel
Image of G. F. Handel

Handel returned to Hanover the following year and quickly requested yet another leave in 1712 to go back to London. This second request was likewise granted. Handel had still not returned to Hanover when Queen Anne died in August 1714. Handel's employer, the Elector of Hanover, was next in line for the British throne and was crowned King George I. Handel was delinquent in not returning to Germany and now his boss was there in England. Fortunately, Handel was never out of favor with his employer.

The British were not enthusiastic about their new monarch and his German heritage but they loved Handel's music. King George planned a boating party on the River Thames in 1717 as a bold publicity statement and commissioned Handel to write music for the event. In addition to the royal barge, a second barge carried 50 musicians. The work Handel composed was a series of short movements that vary in style and last about an hour. The King had it played three times: once on the way to Chelsea, during dinner, and again on the return trip. It was an immediate hit with those on board and with the hundreds who lined the riverbank to see (and hear) this spectacle. We know this famous work today as Water Music.


While attending to his royal duties, Handel was granted great freedom which allowed him to compose and produce operas. In 1719, he became musical director of a new operatic venture called the Royal Academy of Music. Internal conflicts and declining public support caused bankruptcy in 1728. He was then hired to produce operas at King's Theater. Public taste caused more problems and stiff competition caused several of his regular singers to quit and become part of a newly forming opera company. Handel left King's Theater in 1734 for Covent Garden and enjoyed some success before yet another decline in audience. In April 1737, he experienced a physical breakdown and temporary paralysis. By June, yet another enterprise had collapsed leaving Handel in great debt.

With health restored, Handel persisted and had some success with writing oratorio - the opera substitute during Lent when theaters would be closed until Easter. He wrote Saul and Israel in Egypt for the 1739-1740 season. Handel tried his hand again with two operas in 1740-1741, but neither did well. It was August 1741 when he wrote the famous oratorio Messiah.

Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah
Handel Messiah

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