Handel is one of the greatest opera composers the world has ever known, whose psychological insight and deep humanity, together with his genius as a composer and outstanding gift as a melodist resulted in works which in no essential respect are bound just to their own time. We know Messiah, the Water Music, the so-called ‘Handel’s Largo’ – mistakenly confused by the late comedian Tony Hancock as a brand of light ale – which does indeed derive from one of his operas, a handful of arias from the oratorios and the Fireworks Music. But until we can hold our heads high and boast that we know at least half a dozen of the operas, we cannot claim to know his music.
Although he was born in Germany, Handel spent most of his life in England: he paid his first visit to London in 1710, returned to settle in 1712 and became a naturalised Englishman in 1727. England, though, had not been the composer’s original choice of destination. After spending his childhood and adolescence in Halle, at 18 Handel travelled north to Hamburg where he was engaged as a violinist at the celebrated Gänsemarkt (Goose Market) Opera House. Within two years he was directing his own opera Almira (1705), having already crossed swords with a member of the opera company, duelling with him outside the theatre.
It’s hardly surprising that Handel, engaged in proving himself a man of the theatres, should next decide to go to Italy between 1706 and 1710, the fountainhead of Baroque art and the home of opera. Rome was a centre for artists throughout Europe. Where better could Handel seek patronage than among its great aristocratic families and with whom better could he observe techniques in concerto writing than with one of the most popular composers of the day, the great Corelli himself?
Italy witnessed two further operas from Handel’s pen: Rodrigo, first performed in Florence in 1707, and Agrippina, first performed in Venice in 1709-10. By then it was becoming evident that the composer intended to return to his native Germany: in 1710 he accepted the post of Kapellmeister at Hanover. But his tenure was short-lived. By the autumn Handel had already obtained a leave of absence for a year in order to visit London. There he quickly discovered that Italian opera was on a firmer financial footing than in Hanover. It was still something of a novelty in London and, as such, enjoyed the support of aristocratic patrons and audiences.
Early in 1711 Handel’s first Italian opera for the London stage, Rinaldo, was played at the Queen’s Theatre (the theatre changed its name according to the sex of the reigning monarch) in the Haymarket. Between then and 1741, the 30 operas he wrote for London made the city an operatic centre of international renown. Rinaldo, an heroic tale set in the time of the First Crusade, complete with sorceress, mermaids and dragons, was an immediate hit on account of both its beautiful and richly contrasting music and its realistic scenic effects.
Although after 30 years Handel began to turn away from Italian opera there is no falling-off in quality, On the contrary, his greatest masterpieces are fairly evenly spread, with operas such as Ottone, Radamisto, Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano and Rodelinda from the 1720s and Partenope, Poro, Orlando, Ariodante, Alcina and Serse from the 1730s. But the 1730s were difficult years for Handel. Competition from a rival opera company lost him several of his best soloists, and in 1737 he suffered a serious breakdown in health. Six weeks in the spa town of Aix-la-Chapelle, however, did him good; by the end of the year Handel was back at work in London. Despite public indifference to his Italian operas, Handel was still reluctant to give them up entirely. He was, however, by now thinking partly along different lines and following up experiments he had made with two English works – oratorios – which he had introduced into his 1732 opera season. These were Esther and Acis and Galatea, both of which Handel expanded from earlier version (1717-18) written for his then patron, James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon. Handel was now dividing his time mainly between opera and oratorio.
English oratorio was unknown before Handel’s arrival on the London music scene. It was his creation, strikingly different from most of its European counterparts while synthesising English, French, Italian and German elements. Handel’s English oratorios usually consist of a drama in three acts based on or at least related to a sacred subject. Only occasionally, as in Israel in Egypt and Messiah, did the composer use non-dramatic librettos. Saul is the first in a long line of his oratorio masterpieces. First performed in 1739, it was his most lavishly scored oratorio to date and is hardly less dramatic than his operas.
The late 1730s and early 1740s were fertile years: he wrote not only Saul but also the equally vivid Israel in Egypt, the Concerti Grossi Op. 6, Handel’s greatest set of instrumental works, and the English ode L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato – a masterly setting of Milton’s twin poems with an additional third part by Charles Jennens, the librettist of both Saul and Messiah.
The outstanding dramatic achievements of the next ten years include the oratorios Samson, Semele, Hercules, Belshazzar, Solomon, Theodora and Jephtha. Handel’s sense of the theatre in each of these works is vivid and original. Handel’s inventive and thrilling handling of the chorus is second to none. As the musicologist Edward Dent has pointed out this skill was the single great lesson the composer learned in England. Yet he learnt it ‘not from the English church but from the English theatre.’ Without knowledge of his theatre works – this vast, unappreciated area of Handel’s genius – we are in danger of neglecting some of the greatest music he ever wrote.