Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Handel

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Messiah

Messiah (never, please, “The” Messiah) received its premiere performance 278 years ago yesterday, at The Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin, Ireland. As noted in yesterday’s Music History Monday post, the performing forces at the premiere were quite modest. Handel composed the work to be premiered in Dublin. Not being intimately familiar with the abilities of the local musicians, he kept the orchestration simple: strings (an unknown number of which played at the premiere), two trumpets, kettle drums (timpani), an organ and a harpsichord (played alternately by Handel himself). The members of the chorus were drawn from the choirs of two local cathedrals: Christ Church and St. Patrick’s (where Jonathan Swift was, at the time, the Dean). Handel’s chorus consisted of 16 men, 16 boys, and two women soloists, the celebrated English contralto Susannah Cibber and Christina Maria Avoglio, an Italian soprano drawn from Handel’s opera company.  Messiah received its London premiere on March 23, 1743, at the Covent Garden theater, and thus the tweaking began. To his original female soloists Susannah Cibber and Christina Maria Avoglio, Handel added a tenor soloist named John Beard, a bass soloist named Thomas Rheinhold, and two more soprano soloists, Kitty Clive and […]

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Music History Monday: Hallelujah!

We mark the first performance on April 13, 1742 – 278 years ago today – of George Frederick Handel’s Messiah in Dublin, Ireland. Messiah is not just Handel’s most famous work, but one of a handful of “most famous works” in the entire Western musical repertoire. According to the American musicologist Joseph Kerman, Messiah is: “the only composition from the Baroque Era that has been performed continuously – and frequently – since its first appearance.” (I typically take comments like that one – even from someone as unimpeachable as Joseph Kerman – as a challenge. But having thought about it, I’ve concluded that Kerman is correct; Messiah is a singular work, one with an unbroken track record of frequent performances since its premiere, something we cannot say about any other musical work from the Baroque era. For example, the major works of Johann Sebastian Bach went unperformed for more than 75 years after his death. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, composed in 1716 and 1717 and published in 1725, fell into almost complete obscurity from the late eighteenth century until the 1940s, when it was recorded for the first time. Handel’s own anthem for chorus and orchestra – Zadok (pronounced “ZAY-dock”) […]

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Music History Monday: Domenico Scarlatti

We mark the death of the composer Domenico Scarlatti 261 years ago today, on July 23, 1757 in the Spanish capital of Madrid. The year 1685 was something of an annus mirabilis – a “miraculous year” – in the history of Western music as it saw the births of three of the greatest composers ever to grace our planet. On February 23, 1685, George Frederick Handel was born in the central German city of Halle. Thirty-six days later, on March 31, Johann Sebastian Bach was born some 60 miles away, in the central German city of Eisenach. Just under seven months after that, on October 26, Domenico Scarlatti was born in the Italian city of Naples. What a year! Some would take me to task for lumping Scarlatti together with Handel and Bach. (And in truth, we must be careful about lumping anyone together with Sebastian Bach, Handel included.) But having said that, we are not going to diminish one composer’s greatness by cudgeling him with that of another, because any way we spell it, Domenico Scarlatti was, bless him, a great composer. We would further observe that musically, Scarlatti did something that neither Bach nor Handel did: neither Bach […]

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Music History Monday: A Model Citizen

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 […]

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Music History Monday: Water Music, Fiction and Facts

On July 17, 1717 – exactly 300 years ago today – George Frederich Handel’s Orchestral Suites in F Major and D Major (collectively known as his Water Music) received their premiere during a royal cruise down the River Thames from Whitehall to Chelsea. Here’s the story – the great story – that’s usually told about the writing and the premiere of Handel’s H2O Musik: Georg Friedrich Händel was born in the central German state of Saxony-Anhalt on February 23, 1685. Like so many other great musicians (including includes Robert Schumann, Peter Tchaikovsky, Igor Stravinsky, Cole porter and Paul Simon), Handel (we’ll use the Anglicized spelling of name from here on out) bombed out of law school in order to pursue a career as a musician. 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 still but a lad of 20 years of age. From 1706 to 1710 he lived and worked in Italy, composing operas and sacred music. Such was his fame and popularity among Italian audiences that he became know as il caro sassone – “the dear Saxon”. (We […]

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Music History Monday: Immigrants and Immigration

On February 13, 1727 – 290 years ago today – the German-born Georg Friedrich Händel applied for British citizenship. Immigrants and immigration. Hot button topics these days, though I would strongly suggest we take the long view here. If there’s one thing both history and biology have taught us is that the richer the gene pool, the stronger, more competitive and more creative we are and the more tolerant of and adaptable to new ideas and experiences we become. Case in point. In 1712, George Friedrich Handel (his Anglicized name) left Germany and settled permanently in London. His departure was motivated by that most common reason to emigrate: economic opportunity. Though only 27 years old, Handel was already an accomplished composer of Italian-language opera. London offered him an extraordinary opportunity: it was a huge and hugely wealthy city, the population of which was only just beginning to develop a taste for Italian-language opera. Moreover, London had no resident opera composer of any note of its own. Handel correctly reasoned that by setting up shop in London and composing and producing Italian opera he could quickly become a very large musical fish in a very large pond. And that is precisely […]

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