Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: A Model Citizen

George Frideric Handel

Handel, painted by Balthasar Denner circa 1727, at just the time he became a naturalized British subject.

On this day in 1727, the nearly 42 year-old Georg Friedrich Händel was transformed into George Frederick Handel when he was became a naturalized British subject by order of the crown.

Handel’s English citizenship was reflection of not just of Handel’s conviction that his future lay in London (where he’d been living since 1710) but the conviction of the British royal family that he was far too valuable an asset to “belong” to any other nation but England. Handel was the ultimate immigrant: an Ausländer who created for his adopted England a body of music – itself an amalgam of German technique and Italian lyricism – that continues to define the English self-image to this day.

How it all happened is quite a story

He was born in the city of Halle, in the central German state of Saxony-Anhalt, on February 23, 1685. Despite his prodigious musical gifts and his burning ambition to “be a composer”, Handel’s father insisted that his son go to law school. Dutifully but unhappily, the young dude did what he was told, and in 1702 – at the age of 17 – he began studying the law at the University of Halle. Thankfully, within a year he had abandoned the law for a career in music.

Fabulously ambitious and as tireless as a phone solicitor, Handel’s first two operas – Almira and Nero – were written and produced in Hamburg in 1705, when he was just 20 years old.

From 1706 to 1710 he lived and worked in Italy, composing operas and sacred music. Such was his popularity among Italian audiences that he became known as il caro sassone: “the dear Saxon”.

By 1710 the 25 year-old Handel was a hot compositional commodity: a German-trained technical virtuoso who could compose lyric, Italian-language opera as well (if not better) than any Italian.

In June of 1710, Handel was hired as “Kapellmeister” to Prince Georg Ludwig, the Elector of Hanover, in central-north Germany.

Hanover was no political backwater. That’s because in 1701, the mother of the Hanoverian Elector Georg Ludwig – the Electress Sophia – had been designated to be the heir presumptive to the English throne. Which meant that sooner or later, her eldest son – the Elector Georg Ludwig – was going to be the king of England.

Back to Handel in 1710. He didn’t stay in Hanover for long. He was 25; he had a bunch of projects on his plate; and the nice people in Hanover were so pleased with their new Kapellmeister that they made the mistake of giving him a “temporary” leave-of-absence. Handel left Hanover just a few weeks after signing his contract. He returned briefly in 1711, only to request yet another leave of absence. It was grudgingly granted, though this time Handel was informed that he was expected to return “within a reasonable time.”

We trust the Elector wasn’t holding his breath because “a reasonable time” turned out to be “never”.

Handel in London

Handel first arrived in London in either November or December of 1710. His timing was perfect. Italian opera, which had been introduced to London in 1705, was just gaining traction with upper-crust English audiences. Almost immediately upon his arrival in London, melodies drawn from Handel’s opera Agrippina – which had been a huge hit in Rome the previous year – were outfitted with new words and successfully inserted into other operas then being performed in London. Virtually overnight, Handel’s was established a musical force to be reckoned with in Ye Merrye Olde London Towne.

Because of his connection to the soon-to-be-English-royals back in Hanover, Handel was granted an audience with Queen Anne herself. According to H. C. Robbins Landon:

“Handel played for Queen Anne and astonished the court with his flamboyant writing. He was an instant success, with the public and with the Queen.”

Queen Anne’s embrace of Handel had a political edge to it as well. She actively disliked the whole Hanover gang, who she considered to be bumptious German parvenus being forced down the throats of the English people because of her own inability to produce an heir. So even though she didn’t care a whole lot for music, she was tickled to make a fuss over Handel, the notorious truant from Hanover!

Handel was a ringer whose presence in London put English music on the international map. Yes: he undoubtedly profited from the contemporary English willingness to adopt things German. But Handel’s success in London must be credited to Handel himself: to his musical genius, his personal geniality, his ambition and industry, and the remarkably savvy way he went about ingratiating himself to the English public, the aristocracy, and the royal family.

The first of Handel’s works for the royal family was his Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne, which was performed at Court on February 6, 1713. Five weeks later – on March 19, 1713 – Handel’s Te Deum and Jubilate in celebration of the Treaty of Utrecht (which brought an end to the War of Spanish Succession) was publically rehearsed in Whitehall before its official premiere at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Handel’s Te Deum was the most important piece of religious music composed in England since the death of the great Henry Purcell 18 years before – in 1695- and the English knew it. Handel went out of his way to study the music of Purcell, and cultivated a musical style custom-made for English tastes: a style that featured the compact melodic phrase structures of English songs, anthems, and hymns; a style light on melodic embellishment but strong on complex polyphony; a style more “magnificent” than intimate.

A Changing of the Guard

Meanwhile, dynastic events were afoot. On June 8, 1714, the 83 year-old Electress Sophia died in Hanover, clearing the way for her son Georg Ludwig to become the next king of England. That happened rather sooner than later when, on August 1, 1714, Queen Anne died. Prince Georg Ludwig of Hanover was crowned King George I of England on October 20, 1714.

For all the stories surrounding his chagrin at having to face his old boss-turned-king, Handel’s success continued with nary a bump. Even as he got rich composing operas and oratorios, his life and career continued to be closely tied to the English royal family. Handel’s Water Music was composed for George I in 1717 for a royal procession up the Thames. When George II succeeded his father in 1727, Handel composed four so-called “anthems” for orchestra and chorus that were performed during the coronation ceremony. One of these anthems – Zadok the Priest – has been used at every English coronation since. Handel was commissioned to compose the music for the marriage of Frederick, the Prince of Wales, in 1736.

Handel became the go-to composer whenever the English establishment required suitably grand music for special occasions; it is no exaggeration to say that his royal commissions provided the soundtrack for the Hanoverian dynasty.

In 1737, he supplied the funeral music for George II’s wife, Queen Caroline. In 1743 he composed The Dettingen Te Deum and Anthem following George II’s victory at the Battle of Dettingen during the War of Austrian Succession. In 1743 Handel composed the oratorio Judas Maccabeus to celebrate the victory William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland (another of George II’s sons) at the Battle of Culloden in the Scottish Highlands. Finally, the Music for the Royal Fireworks, composed in 1748, celebrated the end of the War of Austrian Succession.

Then there are Handel’s quasi-religious oratorios, works that served both temporal and divine masters, the most famous being Messiah. The story that it was George II himself who first stood up during the Hallelujah chorus at the London premiere of Messiah in March 1743 is probably apocryphal. However, the mere fact that the story has been told and retold for over 270 years is a testament to the ongoing relationship between Handel and the royal family.

It is difficult – from our vantage point today – to imagine anyone more worthy of British citizenship than Handel himself!

How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, 3rd Edition

Shop Now