You might think of Handel as English. He is, after all, buried in Westminster Abbey, an honour accorded to outstanding English figures. But George Frederick Handel was born, on 23 February 1685, in Halle in Germany and perhaps we should really regard him as something of a cosmopolitan figure since, although effectively he settled in England in 1712, he continued to travel in Italy and to return from time to time to Germany.
Although a Protestant, he readily composed for Roman Catholic patrons in Florence and Rome. His father was a capable and prosperous barber-surgeon (it was not unusual in those days for the two skills to be combined!). Handel showed considerable musical talent even as a boy and when he was only twelve he became the assistant organist at Halle Cathedral.
In 1703 he went to Hamburg where he became a violinist in the opera orchestra and where his own first opera, Almira, had its premiere in 1705. Between 1706 and 1710 he travelled in Italy. Here his first two oratorios, The Triumph of Time and Truth and The Resurrection were composed.
Handel returned to Germany in 1710 where he became the musical director for the Elector of Hanover. Shortly afterwards he travelled to England where, in 1711, his opera Rinaldo was performed at the Haymarket Theatre. He made a brief return to the continent and then was attached, for a period, to the household of Lord Burlington in London.
Following the death of Queen Anne in 1714, the Elector of Hanover became George I of England. Handel enjoyed considerable patronage from the Hanoverian Royal family and composed, inter alia, the Water Music (for a Royal evening on the Thames), the great anthem Zadok the Priest for the coronation of George II, and the anthem the Ways of Zion to Mourn on the death of Queen Caroline. In 1723 he bought a substantial house in the newly-developing Brook Street, Hanover Square and in 1727 he applied successfully for naturalization as an Englishman.
Much of his work from 1712 to the late 1730s lay in composing operas for one or other of the principal London theatres but he turned increasingly to oratorio from 1738 when he wrote Saul, to be followed by Israel in Egypt in 1739. The change may reflect a shift in cultural preferences or the very real difficulties in staging economically an art form like opera with its demand for splendid scenic effects and costume as well as outstanding soloists.
Handel wrote the music for the Messiah in 1741 but it was first performed, not in London, but in Dublin. He had been invited there by the Duke of Devonshire who was the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. On 27 March 1742 the Dublin Journal announced:
Messiah was first performed in London on 23 March 1743. Curiously it was not a success. Its failure may have been because people objected to a sacred work being given in a theatre. It was only when it was revived, in 1750, for a charitable performance in the chapel of Thomas Corams Foundling Hospital that it became a hit.
Handel wrote many other oratorios and, although none of them has been quite as successful as the Messiah, several have remained in the regular repertoire of choral societies. These include Judas Maccabeus and Samson.
Handel died on 14 April 1759. He was 74. It is said that 3000 people attended his funeral, in Westminster Abbey, where he was interred on 20 April.