History has been somewhat unkind to Handel. Though he was fondly remembered in the years following his death, a small number of pieces came to define his genius for many people. His operas fell into complete obscurity due to changing fashions, and many other works were misunderstood because of later developments in performance practice. Large choirs and orchestras became popular in the 19th Century, and this did not allow the precision and transparency that so often make Baroque music effective. In recent decades Handel's works have been increasingly revived, in part as a result of the Early Music Movement. Many orchestras now perform Baroque music in a manner that is more authentic.
Notwithstanding the quality of Handel's works, their revival is not always an easy task. His operas became outmoded even in his own lifetime, and their conventions make them very different from most standard opera repetoire (Verdi, Mozart, Puccini, etc.). Musically they are usually brilliant and inventive, but they show minimal orchestration compared to operas by later composers. There are also a preponderance of high voices due to the 18th Century reliance on castrati singers, with no chorus to interrupt the endless parade of da capo arias. Meanwhile the oratorios are difficult to perform because they require an orchestra, chorus, and soloists. Many are based on Biblical stories that would have been well known in Handel's day, but which are obscure to most people now. It is probably no coincidence that the most popular one (Messiah) is based on the most widely known story.
Fortunately the ability to record music has made his works available for all to hear. Oratorios thrive in the recorded mediums precisely because they do what operas usually cannot - tell a story with only music. Handel had the ability to create powerful drama without relying on spectacle, and it is for this reason that his genius is increasingly recognized. His operas are produced regularly by opera companies around the world, and this would have been almost unthinkable only a couple of generations ago. When all of his works are considered, he easily earns his place among the great musical dramatists who have ever lived. Next Page
Biography: Upbringing and Early Career | Handel's Opera Career | Transition to Oratorios | Final years | Legacy | Personality