Introduction to Handel's Music | Next >>
Handel lived at the end of the Baroque era. He was an exact contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach, and the two are commonly paired together as the greatest composers of their time. However, while the music of Bach is often seen as the fulfillment of Baroque ideals raised to their highest form, Handel, though equally noteworthy, is seen as a transitional figure foreshadowing later developments.
Part of this distinction exists because Handel wrote more expressive and affective music, and these qualities would become central to the musical ideals of later generations of composers. Of course he was not the only composer at the time writing musical dramas, but he was the most gifted and versatile.
Among his tools were techniques from Germany, Italy, France and England, both from sacred and secular traditions. These he synthesized with amazing creativity and technical skill, but always with the objective of inducing a reaction in the audience. Whether it be joy, sadness, excitement, humor, fear, or awe, Mozart famously said of Handel that it was in his understanding of effect that he surpassed all other composers. You may also visit this section for more on the topic.
Sadly, for many generations the music of the Baroque was performed with little regard for authenticity, which masked much of Handel’s appeal. But orchestras are increasingly being established that specialize in the performance styles of the era, often with modest numbers of performers and period instruments. Massive orchestras and choirs have been abandoned, as their volume drowns out subtle and complex layering. Music in Handel’s time was built around the interplay of its various parts, and he would rarely have had a choir of more than fifteen or twenty singers.
Besides this necessary transparency of each voice or part, some other conventions of the time should be understood. For one thing, the works are broken up into discreet units, usually only a few minutes long, and with a rest between them. This is true even in Baroque opera, which seems a bizarre and artificial concept for one accustomed to later operatic works with smoother transitions. And though Handel did challenge this feature more than his contemporaries, linking movements for more natural progression, the majority of the time his music follows the convention.
Also, the singing parts are often for vocal registers that seem odd to us. Monarchs and heroes frequently are played by sopranos even if they are men (because in Handel’s day the singers were castrati) and many roles were given to countertenors (men singing in an alto voice). Additionally, many arias follow the da capo principle, having three sections, ABA. The reason was to allow the singers to perform the first section a second time, adding variations and embellishments.
Despite these peculiar attributes of the era, Handel was able to produce music of tremendous power that continues to affect audiences today. Continue onwards for recommended works. Next Page
Handel's Music: Introduction | Oratorios | Operas | Other Vocal Works | Instrumental