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Handel's Biography

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Frequently Asked Questions

    Q: Who was George Frideric Handel?
    A: Handel was one of the foremost composers of the Baroque era, and by far the most successful in his own lifetime. He was German by birth, but became an English citizen and settled in London for most of his life.

    Q: When did he live?
    A: He was born in 1685, the same year as fellow composers J.S.Bach and Domenico Scarlatti. He lived to be 74, which was a pretty good age at the time. For more on his life, see the bio section.

    Q: How much of his music survives?
    A: Fortunately we have the majority of Handel's output still with us. More in fact than any other composer of his day. He was very careful and organized in his affairs, and because he was popular at the time of his death, large amounts of his music were preserved.

    Q: What has he written that I might know?
    A: By far his most popular work is his Messiah, an oratorio that is often performed around Christmas. The most famous movement from it is the “Hallelujah” chorus, which comes at the end of the 2nd part.

    Q: Is his Messiah his best work?
    A: It is an example of Handel at his best, but he has several other works that equal it. It is only because of the subject matter and the tradition associated with it that it towers over his other works in popularity.

    Q: Do his other works often get performed?
    A: Only a few are heard regularly, and they are often his smaller and less interesting pieces. Handel has been greatly misunderstood on account of the small selection of his output that is heard regularly. But in recent decades his fame has been on the rise on account of greater familiarity with his works.

    Q: What are these other great works?
    A: They cross several genres. Handel has several masterful operas, and wrote many oratorios besides Messiah. He also has wonderful ceremonial and religious music. Most of his greatest music is vocal, but his instrumental works are also considered among the best to come out of the Baroque era. See those sections for specific recommendations.

    Q: So if I'm interested in exploring more of Handel's music, should I go pick up a Greatest Hits CD?
    A: That might not be a good idea. Such CDs are frequently made of instrumental excerpts. While this sort of compilation can be very nice, Handel spent most of his life writing for voices and larger ensembles, and this music is what most sets him apart from other composers. He also excelled at building up drama over longer stretches of time. This is best appreciated by hearing full works rather than unrelated pieces that are spliced together.

    Q: How can I hear more Handel without spending lots of money?
    A: We have a section on that very issue here. There are many places to begin exploring his works, including local libraries and the internet. This website also has links to Youtube playlists on several pages.

    Q: Was Handel the greatest composer of all time?
    A: There are certainly those of us who think so, but of course that will remain a matter of opinion. What is certain though, is that one's opinion should be built around more than a single work. No one should judge Beethoven by a single symphony or Bach by a single cantata, and yet a surprising number of people (many of whom have extensive musical knowledge) still remember only Handel's Messiah. If this were to change, he would have far more supporters.

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