Contributed by Jean Kwan

George Frideric Handel (23 February 1685 – 14 April 1759) is a German-British Baroque composer, famous for his operas, oratorios, anthems and organ concertos. Handel is regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time, who composed famous and popular works such as Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks and Messiah.

Do You Know?

George Frideric Handel was born in Halle, in the north German province of Saxony within a month of another famous German composer Johann Sebastian Bach.

Who were Handel’s parents?

Handel was born to Georg Handel (1622-97) and Dorothea Taust (1651-1730). Handel’s father, Georg, was an eminent barber-surgeon for the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels; his mother was the daughter of a pastor. Handel’s father was 63 when Handel was born and died days before Handel turned twelve. He wanted his son to become a successful lawyer, so when he discovered that Handel cared for only music and nothing else, he disallowed him playing any music or going anywhere where music could be heard.

Why is the harpsichord kept hidden in the attic?

On his seventh birthday, Handel’s aunt Anna gave Handel a spinet harpsichord, which was kept hidden in the attic.  One version of the story says that they wrapped each string with thin strips of cloth, so that Handel could play undetected. Whatever the case, young Handel had to play his clavier in secret, perhaps when the family was asleep or when his father was out.

Who is the little boy at the organ?

The Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels loved music and had his own orchestra.

One day when Handel was about 9, his father needed to go Weissenfels. Little Handel begged in vain to follow. At last he ran after the carriage so far that his father had no choice but to take him along. One version of the story says that while they were there, Handel climbed up to the organ loft in the chapel and played. His playing was so good that the organist asked the little boy to play the postlude to the service on Sunday. Another version says that he had befriended the court musicians who then let him play on the organ and the Duke happened to hear the music.  Whatever the case, the Duke was very impressed by the talent he recognized in Handel and summoned the father to let Handel study music seriously under a teacher.

Who was Handel’s first teacher?

Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow (or Zachau) was a composer and organist of Liebfrauenkirche (Market Church of our Lady) in Halle. He taught Handel composition and how to play the organ, harpsichord, violin, and oboe.  Zachow's teaching was so effective, that by 1695 Handel was composing for these and other instruments; from 1696 until 1701 Handel composed many works; in 1702 at the age of seventeen, Handel accepted position as organist at the former Dom in Halle. 

It was said that after three years Zachau felt that Handel had learnt everything that he could possibly teach him. 

Handel always spoke of his old tutor with fondness and respect.  Young Handel would tell people that he had the kindest teacher in all Germany. It is said that after Zachow died in 1712, Handel became a benefactor to his widow and children in gratitude for his teacher's instruction.

Did Handel suffer from any illnesses?

Until the months preceding his death at the age of 74, Handel led an essentially vigorous and healthy life except for two medical problems. The first was recurrent and which some say was a result of stroke, but others say was caused by rheumatism, palsy, or a paralytic disorder. 'His right-arm was become useless to him…He had lost the use of the four fingers of his right hand…” The symptoms returned in 1743. On both occasions, he was able to make a complete recovery.

The second was his blindness, first noted in 1751, when he was 66. He had to stop composing because of a weakening in his left eye. He never recovered his eyesight, becoming almost blind towards the end of his life. It was likely that Handel felt 'dejected, wan, and dark' at the onset of his blindness.

Handel’s 'palsy' interfered with both performing and composing, and his blindness with composing. However, Handel tried his best to finish his work and performed in spite of these setbacks.

What is the story behind Handel’s Messiah?

Handel co-managed an Italian opera company despite many difficulties. By 1737, the company went bankrupt. In 1741, Handel faced the very real possibility of debtor’s prison. He also suffered physical pain from ‘palsy’ or disorder in his hand. Right about then, he received a commission from a charity in Dublin, Ireland, asking that he compose a work for a benefit performance.

Soon afterwards, he received a letter from librettist Charles Jennens with whom he had previously collaborated.  Jennens had written words for a musical oratorio on the life of the Messiah and wanted Handel to write the music. Deeply moved and inspired by Jennens’ libretto, Handel set to work on it right away.

Why did Handel want the Messiah to be performed in theatres?

In an age when illiteracy was widespread and written copies of the Bible were expensive and rare, Handel became excited about Jennens’ idea.  Handel pioneered the “oratorio” a musical composition designed to teach the scriptures by setting them to music.  He wanted to take the message of the scriptures to the streets and specifically with the intent that they would be heard in secular theaters. The church was outraged and protested, but Handel persisted even though doing this also meant little or no profit from his endeavors.

Filled With the Spirit

It is quite well known that when Handel got to the Hallelujah chorus, his assistant/servant found him in tears saying, “I did think I saw heaven open, and saw the very face of God.'

How long did Handel take to write Messiah?

Handel composed Messiah in a short period of about 24 days during the summer of 1741.

The autograph score's 259 pages show some signs of haste such as blots, scratching-outs, unfilled bars and other uncorrected errors, but according to the music scholar Richard Luckett the number of errors is remarkably small in a document of this length.

What do the letters “SDG” at the end of Handel’s manuscript mean?

At the end of his manuscript Handel wrote the letters 'SDG', meaning  Soli Deo Gloria or 'To God alone the glory'. Handel wanted people to glorify God when they listen to or perform Messiah.

Why does audience stand when Hallelujah plays?

When the notes of the Hallelujah Chorus began to ring out, the King George rose and stood up abruptly apparently as a way of indicating that he recognized Christ was the King of Kings. Following royal protocol that if the King stood at any time, no one in his presence sat, the entire audience stood in response with him. This tradition still continues today over 250 years later.

Is it true that “Messiah” fed the hungry?

Handel was a Governor and benefactor of the Foundling Hospital in London, an orphanage for poor and destitute children. To raise fund, he conducted Messiah and continued to do so for every year until his death in 1759.  In total, he personally conducted roughly 36 performances of Messiah.  The annual performances of Messiah provided vital sources of income for the Hospital and raised thousands of British pounds for relief on the streets.

Charles Burney, an eighteenth century music historian, remarked that Handel's Messiah 'fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and fostered the orphan.” Another writer wrote, “Perhaps no other work has so largely contributed to the relief of human suffering.”

What was Handel’s purpose for composing Messiah?

The story goes that after the first performance of Messiah, an enthusiastic member of the audience Lord Kinnoul congratulated the composer and director for producing such a wonderful piece of entertainment.

“Entertainment!” Handel replied, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them, I wish to make them better.”

When and where was Messiah first performed?

Messiah first premiered during the Easter season on 13 April 1742 in new Music Hall in Dublin, Ireland for the benefit of local hospitals.  It was originally sung by a choir of 16 men and 16 boys.  Several of the men sang the solo parts. In its first performance alone, the intake for charity set 142 men free from debtor’s prison!

What were Handel’s last years like?

Before his death, Handel lost his vision due to cataracts.  Handel managed with great difficulty to complete the last of his oratorios, Jephtha, which was performed in Convent Garden theatre, in London, in 1752. He kept his interest in musical activities alive until the end. On 6 April 1759 Handel attended for the last time the performance of the Messiah. He passed away eight days later on 14 April 1759 at the age of 74.

Was Handel German or English?

Handel was born in Germany, spent some years in Italy (1706-1710), but lived most his life (almost 50 years) in England. In fact, he became a naturalized citizen of England in 1726 and anglicized his name to George Frideric Handel. He was given state honor when he died and was buried at the Poet’s corner of Westminster Abbey in England.  Over 3000 people attended his funeral.

Why is Handel’s “Messiah” so famous?

Messiah is one of Handel greatest musical creations, and is arguably the greatest piece of Christian music ever written.  The Hallelujah Chorus is instantly recognizable, even by those who do not consider themselves Christians.  It has become a part of Christian cultural heritage.

A writer of Handel’s era concluded that Messiah “has probably done more to convince thousands of mankind that there is a God about us than all the theological works ever written.”

Is there one version for Messiah?

Handel conducted Messiah many times and often altered the music to suit the needs of the singers and orchestra he had available to him for each performance. It is said that he typically employed an orchestra of about 40 and a chorus of about 16. In consequence, no single version can be regarded as the “authentic” one. Many more variations and rearrangements were added in subsequent centuries–a notable arrangement was one by Mozart, translated into German.

Who wrote the text for Messiah?

The scriptural text or libretto was composed by Charles Jennens.  It was based on the Authorized or King James Version, except the portions from the Psalms, which were extracted from the Great Bible as it was found in the Book of Common Prayer.

What is the structure for Messiah?

Messiah was Handel’s sixth English oratorio. Although its structure resembles that of conventional opera, it is not in dramatic form; there are no impersonations of characters and very little direct speech. Instead, Jennens's text is an extended reflection on Jesus Christ as Messiah, It is divided into three parts:

1)    prophecies about the coming messiah (largely taken from Isaiah);

2)    the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection of Christ;

3)    Christ’s final victory over sin and death, largely based in the book of Revelation.


What did other famous composers think of Handel?

By all accounts, when the great composer Haydn first heard Messiah, he wept like a child and declared of this street-composer, Handel, “He is the master of us all!”

Ludwig van Beethoven said, “Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel on his grave.' Beethoven also praised Handel’s ability to achieve “great effects with simple means.”