George Frideric (or Frederick) Handel was born Georg Friedrich Handel on 23 February or 5 March 1685 (depending on the calendar used) in Halle, Duchy of Magdeburg. His parents were Georg Handel and his second wife Dorothea Taust. He was their second son but first living child, and he had two younger sisters.
Handel’s family was not a member of the higher classes where the arts and music flourished. Handel showed musical interest at an early age, and his father reportedly opposed any musical instruments in the house or Handel’s use of them in any other location. Handel, however, found instruments somewhere.
Handel accompanied his father on a trip to Weissenfels sometime between the ages of seven and nine. While there he went to the court organ and started playing it, surprising everyone present. Duke Johann Adolf I overheard his performance and noted his age. He suggested to his father that he provide musical instruction for his son. Upon their return home Handel’s father hired young Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, the church organist, to give music lessons to his son. Zachow was Handel’s only teacher.
Because of his church employment, Zachow was an organist “of the old school,” reveling in fugues, canons and counterpoint. But he was also familiar with developments in music across Europe and his own compositions “embraced the new concerted, dramatic style.” When Zachow discovered the talent of Handel, he introduced him “to a vast collection of German and Italian music, which he possessed, sacred and profane, vocal and instrumental compositions of different schools, different styles, and of every master. Many traits considered “Handelian” can be traced back to Zachow’s music. At the same time Handel continued practice on the harpsichord, learned violin and organ, but … his special affection was for the hautbois (oboe)….
With respect to instruction in composition, in addition to having Handel apply himself to traditional fugue and cantus firmus work, Zachow, recognizing Handel’s precocious talents, systematically introduced Handel to the variety of styles and masterworks contained in his extensive library. He did this by requiring Handel to copy selected scores…. Much of this copying was entered into a notebook that Handel maintained for the rest of his life….
Zachow apparently delegated some of his church duties to Handel, and Handel frequently performed on the organ. When he was only nine years old, Handel started composing church services for voice and instruments and did this for three years. Handel surpassed Zachow’s abilities by the end of three or four years, and Handel started looking for another situation in Berlin.
Handel received training in Halle and worked as a composer in Hamburg and Italy before settling in London in 1712. He became a naturalized British subject in 1727. Handel became a baroque composer, having been “influenced by the great composers of the Italian Baroque and by the middle-German polyphonic choral tradition.”
Within 15 years of moving to London, Handel established “three commercial opera companies to supply the English nobility with Italian opera.” He has been described as being “a dramatic genius of the first order.” Handel wrote his successful Messiah in 1742 and stopped writing Italian operas.
Born the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti, Handel is regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Baroque era, with works such as Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks and Messiah remaining steadfastly popular. One of his four Coronation Anthems, Zadok the Priest (1727), composed for the coronation of George II, has been performed at every subsequent British coronation, traditionally during the sovereign’s anointing. Handel composed more than forty operas in over thirty years, and since the late 1960s, with the revival of baroque music and historically informed musical performance, interest in Handel’s operas has grown.
Handel lived in England for almost 50 years and was nearly blind when he died in 1759. He had wealth and respect, and he received full state honors at his funeral. He was buried in Westminster Abbey in London.