George Frideric Handel was born into a well-placed, albeit non-musical, family in 1685 in Halle, Germany, near Leipzig. The year 1685 was an auspicious one for baroque music, because it also saw the births of Domenico Scarlatti and Johann Sebastian Bach.
At an early age, Handel taught himself to play both harpsichord and pipe organ. He studied law, but abandoned it for music. Handel trained in Florence, Rome, Naples, and Venice. In 1710, he became Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover, a German nobleman who was also the heir to the throne of England (and would be crowned King George I in 1714, after the death of the childless Queen Anne).
Handel moved to London in 1712 and spent the balance of his life in Britain. As a result, he is often thought of as being an English composer. After his arrival, he enjoyed the patronage of the royal court and the aristocracy. Handel’s beloved Water Music was composed in 1717 at the request of King George I to entertain guests at a party held on barges in the Thames River. It is said that the king so loved the music that he commanded it to be played three times that evening.
Handel soon became the “house composer” for the private orchestra at Cannons, the country estate of the Duke of Chandos. Although he only spent a year and a half at Cannons, it was a productive time that further established Handel’s reputation in Britain. He directed the newly founded Royal Academy of Music from 1719 to 1734. The Academy presented operas, including many written by Handel.
In his role with the Academy, Handel composed music for the 1727 coronation of King George II. One Handel anthem, Zadoc the Priest, has been performed at every British coronation ceremony since that date.
Handel produced opera at Covent Garden from 1734 to 1741, but found the work increasingly difficult and tiring. His next major undertaking would be among his very greatest: Messiah. From the time of its first performance – in Dublin, Ireland, in 1742 – the oratorio has been recognized as an extraordinary work, a landmark in music history.
Handel died in 1759 and was buried in Westminster Abbey with full honors. Messiah was played at his funeral. Many charities were the beneficiaries of his estate.