The Magazine

'Messiah' Man

The music of George Frideric Handel 'makes you want to live.'

Dec 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 15 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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This year marked the 250th anniversary of the death of George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), and musical hallelujahs rang out around the world, as choral societies, professional and amateur, trotted out the warhorse oratorios, and opera houses not only presented the now-standard works (Alcina, Orlando, Serse, and Giulio Cesare in Egitto) but also dug deep for esoterica (Ezio, Partenope).

England, which despite Handel's German origins justly claims him as its greatest composer, was the cynosure of this festive music. Westminster Abbey, where Handel lies buried beside Charles Dickens in Poets' Corner, was the site of a performance of Messiah on April 14, the date of his death. BBC3 Radio conducted a year long celebration, including broadcasts of all 42 operas on successive Thursdays, reaching a climax during Easter week, when it was pretty much all Handel, all the time.

The Handel House Museum also commissioned a new oratorio based on Handel's life and work, 25 Brook Street (the address of the London house, now the museum, where he lived for 36 years and where he died), in a collaboration by four British composers. Another museum production is the exhibition Handel Reveal'd, focusing on those biographical subjects dear to all modern democrats: the great man's finances, health, and his legendary gourmandise. The Foundling Hospital is holding another exhibition, Handel the Philanthropist; a good man as well as a great one, he conducted regular benefit performances of Messiah in the hospital chapel.

The great man fills his admirers with ecumenical richness of heart. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation kicked off its multicultural series of sacred music, The Rhythm Divine, with excerpts from Messiah done by one of Sydney's finest Anglican church choirs; Handel's masterpiece remains sufficiently world-spiritual to be accorded a place beside Indian ragas for meditation and compositions inspired by Islam. Israel hosted three performances of the oratorio Saul by the Stuttgart choir and orchestra Laudamus Te with German, Israeli, and Brazilian soloists; one of the performances was at the Ein Gedi resort, near the cave where David hid from Saul. In the United States, meanwhile, regional opera companies that had not undertaken Handel before introduced his work for the lyric stage to audiences familiar only with Messiah, and educational institutions from Phillips Exeter Academy to the University of Kansas did their hopeful best with memorial lectures and recitals to lay the groundwork for another generation of Handel lovers.

Handel was born in Halle in 1685, the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach, and was christened Georg Friedrich Händel. As is customary with musical genius, talent and inclination showed themselves in boyhood. However, his father, a surgeon-barber and valet de chambre to the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels, 63 years old at Handel's birth, was dead set that his son would not grow up to be a musician; a career in civil law was the only way to go. Paternal strictures against the boy's having anything to do with music only enhanced his desire. The enterprising youngster secretly had a small clavichord brought to an attic room, and there he practiced while everyone else in the house was sleeping. Then one day, after the seven-year-old had finagled a visit to the duke's court with his father, the duke heard him playing the organ and proclaimed his genius, which must not be wasted. The duke persuaded the father to let Handel have music lessons, gave the boy more money than he had ever seen, and told him that if he worked hard he would enjoy every encouragement.

Who can argue with an openhanded potentate? Organ, harpsichord, violin, and composition lessons ensued, and it transpired that the youth was a budding master. Yet after his father's death, his mother emotionally strong-armed her son into pursuing legal studies at the University of Halle. He would never make a lawyer. A month into his first term, the Halle Cathedral offered him the post of organist, and he leaped at the chance. Also, he met Georg Philipp Telemann, another law student in spite of himself, at the University of Leipzig. Telemann performed the invaluable service of true friendship: He introduced Handel to opera, which was not to be found in Halle at the time, and which would become a major aspect of Handel's vocation-indeed, apart from Messiah, the basis of his current reputation as the second musical wonder, after Bach, of his time.