Georg Friedrich Händel|
(1685 - 1759) Germany - U.K.
"Händel is the greatest composer who ever lived.
I would bare my head and kneel at his grave"
-- L.v. Beethoven (1824)
G.F. Händel, the greatest English composer of the late baroque era, was German. A consummate, 18th-century traveler, artist, and entrepreneur, he was an independent and strong-willed individual, and although he was approached several times by royal patrons to become their court composer, Händel was hesitant to professionally "settle down" until he was offered a position commensurate with the status he felt he deserved.
Born in Halle, Germany, Händel grew up under the watchful eyes of his parents; while his mother nurtured his musical gifts, Händel 's father, a barber-surgeon, tried to dissuade him from pursuing a dubious occupation. Following brief, unsuccessful studies at the local university, Händel travelled to Hamburg and then onto Italy (Florence, Rome, Naples, Venice) where he met important individuals who greatly influenced his musical future, such as the composers/musicians, Arcangelo Corelli (who was also gay) and Domenico Scarlatti, and numerous royalty (both religious and secular).
Following his fruitful Italian tour, he returned north of the Alps accepting the appointment of court composer to the Elector of Hanover. Since Italy was dominated by composers like Vivaldi and Corelli, and Germany had Bach and Telemann, Händel made a canny move and achieved fame and fortune by bringing opera in the Italian style to England. He also created magnificent instrumental works such as Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks. An amazing keyboardist, he wrote organ concertos and was famous as an improviser. After two extended visits to London, he finally settled and eventually considered home (becoming a British subject). Ironically, the same Elector of Hanover became King George I of England, following the death of Queen Anne (brought about by the 1701 Act of Settlement).
He fell on hard times when Italian opera went out of style, so he switched to oratorios, which are sung but not acted. Pensioned by the king and idolized by the public, his Messiah remains the greatest and most popular religious composition of all time.
What did Händel look like?
Wildly famous in his lifetime, Händel had several portraits done so these are probably pretty accurate.
He looks like a jolly, jowly guy, and his music has a sense of joy and energy that was called "the open and manly style of Händel". He had a temper and cussed like a sailor in heavily-accented English, but a contemporary biographer said when Händel smiled, "there was a sudden flash of intelligence, wit, and good humor beaming in his countenance which I hardly saw in any other."
Herbert Weinstock calls Händel "one of the most majestic, tender, and human voices ever lifted in praise of life, of love, of beauty, and of the art of music."
"I have no time for anything but music" was Händel's reply to George II's question about his "love of women." But the composer's sovereign was neither the first nor the only of Händel's contemporary admirers and associates to wonder about his sexuality.
Scarcely twenty pages into his narrative, Händel's first biographer, Christopher Mainwaring, feels obliged to address the same question: "In the sequel of his life he refused the highest favors from the fairest of the sex, only because he would not be confined or cramped by particular attachments." Later biographers, from Chrysander(1858) to Hogwood (1984) have either ignored the question of Händel's homosexuality or chose to explain it away.
The most striking example of the latter is provided by Paul Henry Lang (1966), who after recognizing Händel's sexuality to be a "problem" which has "puzzled his biographers for two hundred years" is able to assure us, virtually without evidence, that the composer, although lacking "time for serious engagement with women" was a man of "normal masculine constitution"...
The statement "I don't have time" is a lame excuse for sublimating one's sexuality -- I should know; I've used it myself. Bach was just as busy as Händel, and he had 2 wives and twenty kids! People get very attached politically to national icons: "national heroes" just can't be gay. Thus the fuss raised when Encyclopedia Britannica said that Richard the Lionhearted was gay, and Händel, a huge icon to the English, falls into the same category. There isn't much evidence in Händel's case, but Professor Thomas delivers a convincing argument.
"He made friends with Johann Mattheson, who later became well known as a writer on music. The two young men went to Lübeck in the hope that one might succeed the celebrated but aged D. Buxtehude as town organist; however the appointment also entailed marriage with Buxtehude's daughter and as neither wished to undertake this responsibility they both returned to Hamburg."
--The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Classical Music by Peter Gammond Crown Books, 1989
Händel lived a full and productive life. Yet, life wasn't easy for him. At various times, he was severely criticized by the English social establishment for his artistic output -- some considered it profane.
For example, Händel's most famous work, Messiah, was enthusiastically received following its première in Dublin while it became the subject of great controversy following its London début.
Furthermore, he suffered bouts of anxiety and depression and possibly strokes -- some have theorized that he suffered central nervous system lead poisoning associated with his imbibing of cheap port! During the later years of his life, he experienced progressively debilitating cataracts -- the ensuing operations to restore his vision left him completely blind.
(Of interest, the last English oculist to treat Händel, John Taylor, also unsuccessfully cared for J.S. Bach).
"Total eclipse! no sun, no moon.
All dark amidst the blaze of noon.
Oh glorious light! no cheering ray
To glad my eyes with welcome day."
However, despite this adversity, he maintained a keen sense of humor and was well-known for his charitable disposition. Most importantly, Händel created some of the most beautiful music ever composed...