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England’s greatest Baroque composer was a German

Posted in Historical articles, History, London, Music, Royalty, Theatre on Friday, 27 April 2012

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This edited article about originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 696 published on 17 May 1975.

Young Handel, picture, image, illustration

The young Handel is discovered in the attic playing the harpsichord by his father. Picture by Peter Jackson

Known to millions as the composer of the Hallelujah Chorus and the great oratorio, the Messiah, from which it comes, George Frederic Handel was British by choice, not by birth. Yet his music is part of the British heritage, and he lies buried in Westminster Abbey. What do we know about the little boy from Germany who achieved these things?

Many boys and girls dislike having to practise a musical instrument, even if they have a natural gift for playing it. Parents and teachers have to coax and push them along. With young Handel, however, it was just the opposite. From the time that he could sit on a stool, he loved to get close to a keyboard, and to pick out notes and make up little tunes. And from his earliest years he longed to become a real musician, begging his parents to let him have proper lessons on the harpsichord.

But his father had quite different ideas. A prosperous doctor in the north German town of Halle, he did not intend to let his youngest son lead the irregular and poorly paid life of a musician of those times. No, the boy was to be trained for one of the professions which his father thought respectable, such as that of a lawyer, or perhaps a doctor like himself.

So the small harpsichord in the home of the Handel family was banished to the attic, where George Frederic would not be tempted to waste his time on it. One night, however, his parents were awakened by the sound of soft music stealing down the stairs, long after they had gone to bed. Taking a candle, they went to investigate, and to their amazement found their young son, who was not more than six at the time, seated in his nightshirt in the chilly attic, playing away on the old harpsichord with a skill which was entirely self-taught, and which they had no idea he possessed.

Even this discovery did nothing to make Dr. Handel change his mind. He did not care for music himself, and saw no reason to give in to this odd taste shown by his son.

But the boy was determined to learn more, and this is how he went about it. He had an elder brother, who worked for a duke, who had a fine palace at Weissenfels, about forty miles from Halle. From the stories his brother told him when he came home to visit the family, young George learned that at the duke’s palace there were many musicians, whose job it was to play to the duke and his guests, at balls, concerts, and services in the palace chapel. When George heard that his father was himself going to visit the duke, he naturally asked if he might go too.

Of course Dr. Handel refused. But George was not so easily put off. Alone, he set out on foot to follow the lumbering coach in which his father was travelling. When he guessed that it had gone too far for a return to be convenient, George managed to overtake the coach, and demand a lift from his astonished father. The plan worked and George was taken along to the duke’s palace.

There he quickly made friends with some of the duke’s musicians, who were not only highly amused by the trick he had played on his father, but also greatly impressed by his musical talent. They let him try their various instruments, and were astonished at how well he could play them. They then arranged for him to be playing the organ one day when the duke himself was within hearing distance.

The duke listened attentively, and then asked who it was playing with such skill. When they told him it was the young son of his guest, Dr. Handel, the duke at once sent for the boy’s father, and told him that his son was undoubtedly a musical genius, and must at all costs be allowed to make music his career.

Now Dr. Handel could hardly refuse, so returning to Halle with his son, he took George to the finest musician in the town, a man called Zachau, who was organist and choirmaster at the cathedral. Zachau was a splendid teacher, and gave young George all the help he needed to perfect his art, and develop his in-born talent. He not only taught young Handel the organ and the theory of music, but also how to play the oboe and the violin. But after three years he had to go to the boy’s father and say, “There is nothing more I can teach him; he must go to Berlin, and learn from the foremost musicians in Germany.”

Dr. Handel was now an old man; he had been 63 when his son George was born, and he died when this gifted son was only 16. This meant that George had to start earning his own living, for his widowed mother could not afford to keep him. But in Berlin there were many fine churches with large organs, and he had no difficulty in finding a post as organist at one of these. Strangely enough, he also found time to study law at the university, as his father had always wanted him to do, and his life must have been very busy indeed in these teenage years.

But his musical interests were turning in the direction of the theatre, and when he was barely 18 he threw up all his studies in Berlin in order to go to Hamburg, where he got a job playing the violin at the Opera House.

Life here was not without its risks and problems. He applied for another job as an organist, and might have taken it, had he not discovered in time that one of the conditions was that he should marry the retiring organist’s ugly daughter!

Then a quarrel over the way in which a certain opera should be performed led to a duel outside the Opera House between Handel and the composer of the opera. It is said that Handel’s life was saved only when his opponent’s rapier glanced off one of his waistcoat buttons!

But George Frederic Handel was now a man. His musical career was to take him to Italy for several years, and finally to Britain, a country which he came to love, and of which he became a naturalised citizen in 1726, remaining so until his death in 1759. But the years which formed him into a great musician were really those which he spent in the great cities of German musical life, his birthplace, Halle, and in Berlin and Hamburg, before his twentieth year.

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