Handel, George Frederic

, the greatest musical composer of his time, or perhaps of any time or country, was born at Halle, in the duchy of Magdeburgh, February | 4, 1684, by a second wife of his father, who was an eminent physician and surgeon of the same place, and then above sixty years of age. From his very childhood he discovered such a propensity to music, that his father, who always intended him for the civil law, took every method to oppose this inclination, by keeping him out of the way of, and strictly forbidding him to meddle with, musical instruments of any kind. The son, however, found means to get a little clavicord privately conveyed to a room at the top of the house; and with this he used to amuse himself when the family was asleep. While he was yet under seven years of age, he went with his father to the duke of Saxe Weisenfels, where it was impossible to keep him from harpsichords, and other musical instruments. One morning, while he was playing on the organ, after the service was over, the duke was in the church; and something in his manner of playing affected his highness so strongly, that he asked his valet-de-chambre (who was Handel’s brother-in-law) who it was that he heard at the organ? The valet replied, that it was his brother. The duke demanded to see him; and after making proper inquiries about him, expostulated very seriously with his father, who still retained his prepossessions in favour of the civil law. He allowed that every father had certainly a right to dispose of his children as he should think most expedient; but that in the present instance he could not but consider it as a sort of crime against the public and posterity to rob the world of such a rising genius. The issue of this conversation was, not only a toleration for music, but consent also that a master should be called in to forward and assist him.

The first thing his father did at his return to Halle, was to place him under one Zackau, organist to the cathedral church, a person of great abilities in his profession, and not more qualified than inclined to do justice to any pupil of promising hopes. Handel pleased him so much, that he never thought he could do enough for him. He was proud of a pupil who already began to attract the attention of the public; and glad of an assistant who by his extraordinary talents was capable of supplying his place whenever he had a mind to be absent. If it seem strange to talk of an assistant at seven years of age, it will appear stranger that at nine Handel began to compose the church service for voices and instruments, and from that time was | accustomed to compose a service every week for three years successively. Having far surpassed his master, the master himself confessing it, and made all the improvement he could at Halle, it was agreed he should go to Berlin in 1698, where the opera was in a flourishing condition under the encouragement of the elector of Brandenburg, afterwards king of Prussia. Handel had not been long at this court before his abilities became known to the sovereign, who frequently sent for him, and made him large presents. He farther offered to send him to Italy, where he might be formed under the best masters, and have opportunities of hearing and seeing all that was excellent in the kind; but his father refused this offer from a spirit of independence. During his stay at Berlin, he became acquainted with two Italian composers, Buononcini and Attilio; the same who afterwards came to England while Handel was here, and were at the head of a formidable opposition against him.

Next to the opera of Berlin, that of Hamburgh was in the highest request and thither it was resolved to send him, with a view to improvement but his father’s death happening soon after, and his mother being left in narrow circumstances, he thought it necessary to procure scholars, and obtain some employment in the orchestra; and by this means was enabled to prove a great relief to her. He had a dispute at Hamburgh with one of the masters, in opposition to whom he laid claim to the first harpsichord, which was determined in his favour. The honour, however, had like to have cost him dear; for his antagonist so resented his being constrained to yield to such a stripling competitor, that, as they were coming out of the orchestra, he made a push at him with a sword, which had infallibly pierced his heart, but for the friendly score which he carried accidentally in his bosom. “Had this happened,” says his historian, “in the early ages, not a mortal but would have been persuaded that Apollo himself interposed to preserve him in the form of a music-book.” Dr. Burney, however, has subdued this flourish a little, by informing us that the sword broke against a metal button. t

From conducting the performance he became composer to the Chouse; and “Almeria,” his first opera, was composed when he was not much above fourteen years of age. The success of it was so great, that it ran for thirty nights without interruption; and this encouraged him to | compose others, as he did also a considerable number of sonatas during his stay at Hamburgh, which was about four or five years. He contracted an acquaintance at this place with many persons of note, among whom was the prince of Tuscany, brother to the grand duke. The prince, who was a great lover of the art for which his country was famous, would often lament Handel’s not being acquainted with the Italian music; shewed him a large collection of it,; and was very desirous he should return with him to Florence. Handel plainly answered, that he could see nothing in the music answerable to the prince’s character of it; but, on the contrary, thought it so very indifferent, that the singers, he said, must be angels to recommend it. The prince smiled at the severity of his censure, yet pressed him to return with him, and intimated that no convenience should be wanting. Handel thanked him for the offer of a favour which he did not chuse to accept; for he resolved to go to Italy on a speculation of his own, as soon as he could raise a sum sufficient for the purpose. He had in him from his childhood a strong spirit of independence, which was never known to forsake him in the most distressful seasons of his life; and it is remarkable that he refused the greatest offers from persons of the first distinction, because he would not be cramped or confined by particular attachments.

Soon after, he went to Italy, and Florence was his first destination; where at the age of eighteen, he composed the opera of “Rodrigo,” for which he was presented with 100 sequins, and a service of plate. This may serve to shew what a reception he met with at a place where the highest notions were conceived of him before he arrived. Vittoria, a celebrated actress and singer, bore a principal part in this opera. She was a fine woman, and had been some time in the good graces of his serene highness; yet Handel’s youth and comeliness, joined with his fame and abilities in music, had raised emotions in her heart, which, however, we do not find that Handel in the least encouraged. After about a year’s stay at Florence, he went to Venice, where he was first discovered at a masquerade, while he was playing on a harpsichord in his vizor. Scarlatti happened to be there, and affirmed it could be no one but the famous Saxon or the devil. Being earnestly importuned to compose an opera, he finished his “Agripjpina” in three weeks; which was performed twenty-seven | nights successively, and with which the audience were enraptured. From Venice he went to Rome, where his arrival was no sooner known than he received polite messages from persons of the first distinction. Among his greatest admirers was the cardinal Ottoboni, a man of reiined taste and princely magnificence; at whose court he met with the famous Corelli, with whom he became well acquainted. Attempts were made at Rome to convert him to Popery; but he declared himself resolved to die a member of that communion, whether true or false, in which he had been born and bred. From Rome he went to Naples; and after he quitted Naples, made a second visit to Florence, Rome, and Venice. The whole time of his abode in Italy was six years; during which he had composed a great deal of music, and some in almost every species of composition. These early fruits of his studies would doubtless be great curiosities, could they be met with.

He now returned to his native country, but could not prevail on himself to settle while there was any musical court which he had not seen. He accordingly visited Hanover, where he met with Steffani, with whom he had been acquainted at Venice; and who was then master of the chapel to George I. when elector of Hanover. There also was a nobleman who had taken notice of him in Italy, and who afterwards did him great service when he came to Kngland for the second time, baron Kilmansegge, who now introduced him at court, and so well recommended him to his electoral highness, that he immediately offered him a pension of 1500 crowns per annum, as an inducement to stay. Handel excused his not accepting this high favour, because he had promised the court of the elector palatine, and had also thoughts of going to England, whither he had received strong invitations from the duke of Manchester. On this he obtained leave to be absent for a twelvemonth or more at a time, and to go whithersoever he pleased; and on these conditions he thankfully accepted the pension.

After paying a visit to his mother, who was now extremely old and blind, and to his old master Zackau, he set out for Dusseldorp. The elector was highly pleased with him, and at parting made him a present of a fine set of wrought plate for a dessert. From Dusseldorp he made the best of his way through Holland; and embarking for England, he arrived at London in the winter of 1710, | where he was soon introduced at court, and honoured with marks of the queen’s favour. Many of the nobility were impatient for an opera from him on which he composed “Rinaldo,” which succeeded so wonderfully, that his engagements at Hanover became the subject of much concern. He returned however thither in about a twelvemonth; for besides his pension, Steffani had resigned to him the mastership of the chapel; but in 17 12 he obtained leave of the elector to visit England again, on condition that he returned within a reasonable time. The poor state of music here, and the wretched proceedings at the Haymarket, made the nobility desirous that he might be employed in composing for the theatre. To their applications the queen added her own authority; and as an encouragement, settled on him for life a pension of 20O/, per annum. All this induced Handel to forget his obligations to Hanover; so that when George I. came over at the death of the queen, in 1714, conscious how ill he had deserved at his hands, he durst not appear at court. It happened, however, that his noble friend baron Kilmansegge was here; and he, with others of the nobility, contrived the following scheme for reinstating him in his majesty’s favour. The king was persuaded to form a party on the water; and Handel was desired to prepare some music for that occasion. This, which has since been so justly celebrated under the title of the “Water Music,” was performed and conducted by himself, unknown to his majesty, whose pleasure on hearing it was equal to hig surprize. Upon his inquiring whose it was, the baron produced the delinquent, and presented him to his majesty, as one that was too conscious of his fault to attempt an excuse for it. Thus Handel was restored to favour, and his music honoured with the highest approbation; and as a token of it, the king was pleased* to add a pension foe life of 200l. a year to that which queen Anne had before given him. Some years after, when he was employed to teach the young princesses, another pension was added to the former by her late majesty.

Handel was now settled in England, and well provided for. The first three years he was chiefly, if not constantly, at the earl of Burlington’s, where he frequently met Pope. The poet one day asked his friend Arbuthnot, of whose knowledge’in music he had an high idea, what was his real opinion of Handel, as a master of that science? who re-, | plied, “Conceive the highest you can of his abilities, and they are much beyond any thing that you can conceive.Pope nevertheless declared, that Handel’s finest things, so untoward were his ears, gave him no more pleasure than the airs of a common ballad. The two next years Handel spent at Cannons, then in its glory, and composed music for the chapel there. About this time a project was formed by the nobility for erecting an academy in the Haymarket; the intention of which was to secure a constant supply of operas, to be composed by Handel, and to be performed under his direction. For this purpose the sum of 50,000^. was subscribed, the king subscribing lOOOl. and a society was formed called “the Royal Academy.” Handel immediately was commissioned to go to Dresden in quest of singers, whence he brought Senesino and Duristanti. At this time Buononcini and Attilto, whom we have mentioned before, composed for the opera, and had a strong party in their favour, which produced a violent opposition, ridiculed by Swift and the other wits of the time, although of great importance to the fashionable world; but at last the rival composers and performers were all united, and each was to have his particular part.

The academy being now firmly established, and Handel appointed principal composer, all things went on prosperously for a course of ten years. Handel maintained an absolute authority over the singers and the band, or rather kept them in total subjection. What, however, they regarded for some time as legal government, at length appeared to be downright tyranny; on which a rebellion commenced, with Senesino at the head of it, and all became tumult and civil war. Handel perceiving that Senesino was grown less tractable and obsequious, resolved to subdue him. To manage him by gentle means he disdained; yet to controul him by force he could not, Senesino’s interest and party being too powerful. The one, therefore, was quite refractory, the other quite outrageous. The merits of the quarrel are not known; but, whatever they were, the nobility would not consent to his design of parting with Senesino, and Handel had resolved to have no farther concerns with him. And thus the academy, after it had gone on in a flourishing state for above nine years, was at once dissolved.

Handel still continued at the Haymarket, but his audience gradually sunk away. New singers must be sought, | and could not be had any nearer than Italy, to which, however, he was obliged to go, and returning with several singers, he carried on the opera for three or four years without success. Many of the nobility raised a new subscription for another opera at Lincoln’s-inn-fields, and sent for Farinelli and others; and in short, the opposition was so strong, that in spite of his great abilities, his affairs declined, and his fortune was not more impaired than his health and his understanding. His right arm was become useless to him from a stroke of the palsy; and his senses were greatly disordered at intervals for a long time. In this unhappy state, it was thought necessary that he should go to the vapour-baths at Aix-la-Chapelle; and thence he received a cure, which from the manner, as well as quickness of it, passed with the nuns for a miracle.

Soon after his return to London, in 1736, his “Alexander’s Feast” was performed at Covent-garden, and applauded; and several other attempts were made to reinstate him, but they did not prevail; the Italian party were too powerful; so that in 174-1 he went to Dublin, where he was well received, and began to repair his fortune. At his return to London in 1741-2, the minds of most men were disposed in his favour, and the aera of his prosperity returned. He immediately began his oratorios in Coventgarden, which he continued with uninterrupted success and unrivalled glory, till within eight days of his death. The last was performed on the 6th, and he expired on the 13th of April, 1759. He was buried in Westminster-abbey, where by his own order, and at his own expence, a monument is erected to his memory.

As a composer, it would be affectation to attempt any character of Handel after what Dr. Burney has given. “That Handel was superior in the strength and boldness of his style, the richness of his harmony, and complication of parts, to every composer who has been most admired for such excellencies, cannot be disputed; and while fugue, contrivance, and a full score were more generallyreverenced than at present, he remained wholly unrivalled. We know it has been said that Handel was not the original 3-nd immediate inventor of several species of music for which his name has been celebrated; but with respect to originality, it is a term to which proper limits should be set before it is applied to the productions of any artist. Every invention is clumsy in its beginning j and Shakspeare was | not the first writer of plays, or Corelli the first composer of violin solos, sonatas, and concertos, though those which he produced were the best of his time; nor was Milton the inventor of epic poetry. The scale, harmony, and cadence of music being settled, it is impossible for any composer to invent a genus of composition that is wholly and rigorously new, any more than for a poet to form a language, idiom, and phraseology for himself. All that the o-reatest and boldest musical inventor can do, is to avail himself of the best effusions, combinations, and effects of his predecessors; to arrange and apply them in a new manner; and to add from his own source, whatever he can draw, that is grand, graceful, gay, pathetic, or in any other way pleasing. This Handel did in a most ample and superior manner; being possessed in his middle age and full vigour, of every refinement and perfection of his time; uniting the depth and elaborate contrivance of his own country with Italian elegance and facility; as he seems while he resided south of the Alps, to have listened attentively in the church, theatre, and chamber, to the most exquisite compositions and performers of every kind that were then existing. We will not assert that his vocal meTodies were more polished and graceful than those of his countryman and contemporary Hasse; or his recitatives or musical declamation, superior to that of his rivals Buononcini and Porpora. But in his instrumental compositions there is a vigour, a spirit, a variety, a learning, and invention, superior to every other composer that can be named; and in his organ fugues and organ playing, there is learning always free from pedantry; and in his choruses a grandeur and sublimity which we believe has never been equalled since the invention of counterpoint.

The figure of Handel was large, and he was somewhat corpulent and unwieldy in his motions, and his general cast of countenance seemed rather heavy and sour; yet, when animated in conversation, his visage was full of fire and dignity, and such as impressed ideas of superiority and genius; and when he smiled, there was an uncommon sudden flash of intelligence, wit, and good-humour beaming in his countenance. Though he was generally rough and peremptory in his manners and conversation, he was totally devoid of ill-nature or malevolence; indeed, there was an original humour and pleasantry in his most lively sallies of anger or impatience, which, with his broken | English, were extremely risible. His natural propensity to wit and humour, and happy manner of relating common occurrences in an uncommon way, enabled him to throw persons and things into very ridiculous attitudes. Had he been as great a master of the English language as Swift, his bon-mots would have been as frequent, and somewhat of the same kind.

Handel, with many virtues, was addicted to no vice that was injurious to society. Nature, indeed, required a great supply of sustenance to support so huge a mass, and he was rather Epicurean in the choice of it; but this seems to have been the only appetite which he allowed himself to gratify; and though he was frequently rough in his language, and in the habit of swearing, a' vice then much more in fashion than at present, he became more regular during the last years of his life, and constantly attended public prayers twice a day, winter and summer, both in London and Tunbridge.

It has been said of him, that out of his profession he was ignorant and dull, but, if the fact was as true as it is severe, it must be allowed in extenuation, that to possess a difficult art in the perfect manner in which he did, and to be possessed by it, seems a natural consequence, and all that the public had a right to expect, as he pretended to nothing more. So occupied and absorbed was Handel by the study and exercise of his profession, that he had little time to bestow, either on private amusements or the cultivation of friendship. Indeed, the credit and reverence arising from these, had Handel possessed them, would have been transient, and confined to his own age and acquaintance; whereas the fame acquired by silent and close application to his professional business is universal. Dr. Burney thinks it probable that his name, like that of many of his brethren, will long survive his works. The most learned man can give us no information concerning either the private life or compositions of Orpheus, Amphion, Linus, Olympus, Terpander, or Timotheus, yet every school-boy can tell us that they were great musicians, the delight of their several ages, and many years after, of posterity. Though totally free from the sordid vices of meanness and avarice, and possessed of their opposite virtues, charity and generosity, in spite of temporary adversity, powerful enemies, and frequent maladies of body, which sometimes extended to intellect, Handel died worth | upwards of 20,000l.; which, except 1000l. to the fund for decayed musicians and their families, he chiefly bequeathed to his relations on the continent. 1


Barney’s Hist, of Music, and article in Rees’s Cyclopadia. Burney’s Hist, of the Commemoration of Handel.