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Music / George Frederic Handel

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"I thought I saw the face of God."
— after composing the Hallelujah chorus for Messiah

German-born English composer (23 February 1685 – 14 April 1759), an exact contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach (Bach was born 37 days after Händel), although they never met, even though they were from the same general part of Germany (Handel's birthplace of Halle being not quite 200 km by road from Bach's hometown of Eisenach).note  His birth name was Georg Friederich Händel, but when he moved to England and became a naturalized citizen he anglicized the spelling; music scholars will go either way with it.

Händel made his name and fortune composing operas in Italian, writing over 40 of them, most of them for the English market after he moved to London; he was the first ever composer to become rich and famous from composing. So many people wanted to attend just the rehearsal of his "Music for the Royal Fireworks" that it caused a three-hour-long traffic jam on London Bridge. In the 1740s, the audience's taste for Italian opera mysteriously went away, helped along by the smash hit of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera in English. So after a brief period of reconsideration Handel, recognizing what the audience wanted, began to write oratorios in English, the most famous of which (and most famous overall) is Messiah. (Yes, it's the one with the "Hallelujah" chorus.)

He is mentioned as being dead in the song "Decomposing Composers" by Michael Palin sang on Monty Python's Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album.

Works by Händel with their own pages:

Tropes present in Händel's works:

  • Accent Upon The Wrong Syllable: The original version of the aria "The Trumpet Shall Sound" from Messiah repeatedly sets the word "incorruptible" as "in-COR-rup-TIB-le." Similarly, "Hallelujah" includes the line "For the Lord God Om-NI-po-tent reign-eth." This may be down to English not being Händel's first language. It's usually changed discreetly in performance, although the correct pronunciation doesn't exactly fit the melody as he wrote it.
  • Adaptation Distillation: When he used old libretti as the basis for his operas, the texts were often considerably shortened.
  • Ambiguously Gay: At the end of Saul, David responds to Jonathan's death with the words 'Great was the pleasure I enjoy'd in thee,/ and more than woman's love thy wondrous love to me'. But given that this was 200 years ago, concepts of relationship were very different; it might mean they were Heterosexual Life-Partners. The debate rages on...
  • Ambition Is Evil: In Alexander Balus, Ptolemee marries his daughter Cleopatra off to the title character, plotting to stab him in the back to further his own goals. The scheme ultimately ruins his daughter's wedded bliss (she and Alexander were actually happy together), and gets both Ptolemee and Alexander killed. Cleopatra summarises that "This is thy havock, O ambition, bane of human happiness!".
  • In George Frederic Handel's "Zadok the Priest", there is one part with the lyrics "and all the people rejoiced".
  • Artistic License – History: A lot of Händel's operas are based on the lives of historical figures (Alessandro, Ricardo Primo, Agrippina), but the librettists frequently distorted facts in service of a good story (and a happy ending). Just to pick a prominent example, anyone familiar with Imperial Roman history might be surprised that Agrippina concludes with joyful wedding celebrations when, in reality, the events portrayed (Agrippina's string-pulling with her son Nero, Nero's adulterous affair with Poppea Sabina etc.) led to... well, a lot of ugly death, really.
    • Lampshaded in the introduction to the word-books for Serse: "Some imbicilities, and the temerity of Xerxes (such as his being deeply enamour’d with a plane tree, and the building of a bridge over the Hellespont to unite Asia to Europe) are the basis of the story, the rest is fiction".
  • As the Good Book Says...: All text for Messiah is taken directly from The Bible. Several of Handel's other oratorios are based on Scripture as well, but with other interpolations.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: He wrote four coronation anthems for the coronation of George II in 1727. One of the four, "Zadok the Priest" (played at or around the all-important moment of anointment) proved so popular that it has been used at every coronation ever since, and the other three are usually in the mix as well.
  • Bearer of Bad News: There are quite a few Greek-tragedy-style 'messenger scenes' (where horrible events happen offstage and are reported by an eyewitness) in both the operas and oratorios.
    • Happens twice in quick succession in Alexander Balus: first someone rushes in to announce that Alexander is dead, then someone else arrives with news of Ptolemee's death (see From Bad to Worse below).
    • Lycas telling the citizens about the poisoning of the title character in Hercules.
    • Samson has a character referred to as 'messenger' in the libretto and 'an Hebrew of our tribe' by the other characters who relates how Samson pulled down a building, killing himself. He does add a silver lining (or at least the people he's talking to would see it as such): Samson's Philistine captors also died in the collapse.
    • The Amalekite who tells David of Saul and Jonathan's deaths in Saul, then gets executed for his trouble (he himself had helped Saul commit suicide, but still...).
  • Best Friends-in-Law: David and Jonathan in Saul after David marries Jonathan's sister Michal.
  • Chewing the Scenery: The title character in Hercules after being poisoned, and his wife Dejanira after realising she poisoned him.
  • Classical Mythology: The basis for several of his operas, oratorios and cantatas.
  • Dishonored Dead: In Giulio Cesare in Egitto, the body of Achillas, the Egyptian commander, is thrown by Sextus into the sea. Achillas did work for the Romans' enemy before and especially take part in the murder of Sextus' father, but Sextus completely ignores the fact that he had defected to the good side and had just given him, Sextus, the commander's sigil which is the only means to save his mother.
  • Downer Ending: Given that opera and oratorio of the time had a strong emphasis on happy endings, these are few and far between, but the English oratorio Theodora is an outstanding exception, finishing with the execution of the title character and her lover.
  • Driven to Suicide: Bajazet in Tamerlano.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: Pop quiz—For what event do you think "Music for the Royal Fireworks" was composed? How about the "Coronation Anthems"?
  • From Bad to Worse/BSoD Song: At the end of Alexander Balus, a messenger arrives with news that Cleopatra's husband has been killed in battle, and she responds with an anguished, passionate lament. Then a second messenger comes to tell her that her father is also dead... and after a brief outburst, she just shuts down, and closes the scene thusly:
    Convey me to some peaceful shore
    Where no tumultuous billows roar,
    Where life, though joyless, still is calm
    and sweet content is sorrow's balm.
    There, free from pomp and care, to wait,
    forgetting and forgot, the will of fate.
  • Gender-Blender Name: Michal is the daughter of the title character in Saul. Comes across as this trope to modern audiences, mightn't have at its premiere.
  • Genre-Busting: Scholars still argue over whether Hercules and Semele are oratorios, operas or something else (even though they're performed in opera houses quite a bit). Händel called Hercules 'A Musical Drama' and said Semele would be performed 'After the manner of an oratorio' (implying it wasn't actually one), so it seems even the man himself didn't want to nail his colours to the mast.
  • God-Is-Love Songs: The "Hallelujah" chorus from Messiah may be the best illustration of this trope ever.
  • Greek Chorus: In a lot of the oratorios, particularly (and unsurprisingly) the ones based on Classical Mythology.
  • Heel–Face Turn: A lot of the operas end with the villain having one of these. It was a really common device in Italian-language opera at the time, not just in Händel's works.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: David and Jonathan in Saul, though some read it as Ambiguously Gay.
  • Hymn to Music: Several times. In Saul, David's skill as a harpist gives rise to an extensive one. Alexander's Feast; or, The Power of Music and Ode for St Cecilia's Day, both based on poems by Dryden in honour of the patron saint of music, apply this trope to entire odes rather than just a single song or movement.
  • Hypocrite: The title character in Saul made witchcraft punishable by death... then he displeases God, can't hope for any divine aid in an imminent war, and goes to a witch for help.
  • Jesus Was Way Cool: The subject of Messiah, and most likely a big reason for its popularity.
  • Judgment of Solomon: Not surprisingly, in Solomon, two women, baby and everything.
  • Last-Minute Reprieve: The title character in Jephtha is about to sacrifice his own daughter (because of a rash promise to God), when an angel appears and tells him there's no need because... God set the whole thing up and stuff. It jars, but Händel pulls it off.
  • Last Request: When his lifelong friend and commissioner, George I, was on his deathbed, he made two acts as king: the first was to naturalize Händel as a British citizen. The second one was to commission him to write a coronation anthem for his son, who would become George II. It was awesome.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Basically every opera of his has one. Take Giulio Cesare in Egitto: Cleopatra falls in love with Caesar, but Caesar's friend Curio is also attracted to her (before they know her true identity) mainly because he wants to forget about Cornelia who rejected him, while Cornelia in the meantime is being pursued by the antagonists Achilla (who, in most interpretations, comes to truly love her) and Ptolemy (who wants her and a whole harem of girls).
  • Melismatic Vocals: A very popular device for Baroque composers, and Händel was very good at it. Particularly well-known example in the chorus 'For unto us a child is born' from Messiah; 'born' is set to a 57-note melisma.
  • Mood Whiplash: Baroque composers were fond of extreme contrast, and Händel uses this a lot. However, there are a few particularly cool examples that deserve special mention:
    • Act I of Acis and Galatea closes with the love duet 'Happy We!', and Act II opens with the chorus ''Wretched lovers! quit your dream'.
    • In Alexander Balus, Cleopatra's meditative, pastoral aria is suddenly interrupted by a chorus of thugs sent by her father to kidnap her. Made all the more striking because we expect this to be a da capo aria (ABA) but the chorus bursts in before Cleopatra finishes the B section.
    • L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato positively runs on this trope, alternating songs in praise of a carefree life of pleasure with ones extolling a hermitic, religious existence.
    • In Samson, two friends pensively discuss their concern for the title character, only to be interrupted mid sentence by 'A symphony of horror and confusion' representing the collapse of a nearby building.
    • The chorus "All We, Like Sheep" from Messiah starts off quite cheerfully, with layered melismas making the music sound as though the whole choir is on a whirlgig. And then the music draws to a dead halt and the second half of the chorus is slow and somber in a minor key.
    • Saul features a cheerful chorus celebrating David's triumph, followed by the title character expressing jealous, paranoid rage. Then we go back to the jubilant chorus (even more excited than before), then back to broody Saul, then on to even angrier Saul.
    • The title heroine in Susanna sings a dignified lament whose middle section is interrupted by the impatient blusterings of another character. Then she goes back to the first section to finish the aria anyway.
  • Muggle in Mage Custody: In Alcina, the titular sorceress seduces every knight that arrives on her island, and then, once she gets bored of them, she turns them into stones, animals, plants, or whatever she fancies.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Dejanira in Hercules after she gives her husband a robe soaked in poison (she thought it was a potion that would stop him cheating). Results in a pretty terrifying breakdown, with violent mood swings and horrible hallucinations, all vividly portrayed in music.
  • Necromancer: The Witch of Endor in Saul, who summons the ghost of the prophet Samuel at Saul's command.
  • Opera: He composed dozens of them, a few of which remain in the standard repertoire to this day, and others that are starting to come back in vogue.
  • Oratorio: The genre he is probably best known for, thanks to Messiah.
  • Orchestral Bombing: "Music for the Royal Fireworks", as the name suggests, was written to be accompanied by a live fireworks display in a specially designed outdoor pavilion with 101 cannons.
  • Out-of-Genre Experience: While Händel is rightly famous for his own work, he is less known as a major force in the preservation of Irish folk music. He spent a lot of time in Dublin gathering and notating Irish airs and dance tunes.
  • Passion Play: Brockes Passion and much of the second part of Messiah.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: The "Hallelujah Chorus" has been used and abused in innumerable commercials and movies.
  • Rated M for Manly: "Music for the Royal Fireworks" was this by design. Commissioned to celebrate the end of the War of the Austrian Succession, the Master-General of the Ordinance (in charge of said fireworks) demanded martial music and "no fiddles", so Handel crammed it full of horns, trumpets, bassoons, oboes, and drums.
  • Rightful King Returns: Joas in Athalia.
  • Sense Loss Sadness: "Total Eclipse" from Samson, which thanks to Reality Subtext became a literal Tear Jerker for the composer (and the audience) when he lost his own sight.
  • Standard Snippet: The Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah is probably THE best-known piece from Handel, heard everywhere from Western comedies to Japanese anime!
  • The Simple Life is Simple: The pastoral opera Acis and Galatea and the ode L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato use this trope almost throughout (and use it gloriously).
  • Take Me Instead: In Jephtha, Hamor offers to be sacrificed in place of his fiancée Iphis.
  • The "The" Title Confusion: Messiah is just Messiah. Some people include The and others take a safe option and just call it Händel's Messiah.
  • Trope Codifier: For English oratorio.
  • Urban Legend:
    • King George II did not rise to his feet upon hearing the "Hallelujah Chorus," nor indeed is there any clear evidence he was even at the (London) premiere.note  But thanks to the legend, it's become a concert tradition for the audience to follow suit.
    • Also, the story is sometimes told that Händel composed the "Water Music" to earn his way back into the king's favor after a falling-out. In fact, George I specifically commissioned the piece in order to counter the growing popularity of his son, the Prince of Wales (later George II), with whom—like pretty much all Hanoverian monarchs and their eldest sons—he had had a falling-out.
  • The Vamp: Dalila in Samson, and the title character in Alcina, who seduces knights, gets bored of them, and turns them into... anything that comes to mind.
  • War Is Hell: The aria 'War, he sung, is toil and trouble' in Alexander's Feast.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: The title character in Jephtha promises God that if he triumphs in battle, he'll sacrifice the first living thing he sees when he gets back. The first person he meets is his daughter. When his brother, wife and future son-in-law find out, they let fly with this trope.
  • Woman Scorned:
    • Dejanira in Hercules, though she only thought she was about to be scorned. It turned out she was wrong, but by the time she realised that it was already waaaay too late.

Tropes present in Händel's life:

  • Ambiguously Gay: Händel never married and he never had a long-term relationship with a woman, although he had plenty of opportunities to have one since he worked for most of his life writing operas. Some people believe that he had a long-term relationship with his secretary, John Christopher Smith; there's no evidence that he did, but also none that he didn't, either.
  • Berserk Button: People playing out of tune would make him fly off the handle, so to speak. He demanded that the orchestras he worked with the tune before he showed up, and at one time slugged the jaw of a violinist who missed a note.
  • Blind Musician: Händel lost his vision later in life, but kept on composing and performing. On one occasion, Sir John Stanley — also blind — was scheduled to be the keyboardist for a concert that Handel was supposed to conduct. Händel, when told of it, said, "Don't you know your Scripture? If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the pit."
  • Deadpan Snarker: When a male singer protested about Händel's accompaniment by threatening to jump on Händel's harpsichord, he famously replied:
    Let me know when you will do that and I will advertise. I am sure more people will come to see you jump than will come to hear you sing.
    • Then there was the time a violinist he was accompanying improvised a big showy cadenza and lost track of what key he was meant to be in. When he finally found his way back to the right key, Händel shouted 'Welcome home!', and the audience burst out laughing.
    • Also when he was told that a singer he knew intended to study basso continuo playing (i.e. improvised keyboard harmony over a given bass line), he quipped 'What may we not expect?'
    • This was once turned against him. When a newly-arrived soloist terribly botched his first rehearsal, Händel rebuked him, saying "You said you could read at sight!" The soloist replied, "I said that, but I didn't say at first sight."
  • Genius Bruiser: An immensely skilled musician and composer, but also famous for his huge size and prodigious strength — recall the famous incident in which he held a soprano out of a window until she acquiesced to some demand of his, to say nothing of the incident with the kettle drum. The incident with the kettle drum? See Hot-Blooded, below.
  • Hot-Blooded: Once, during a practice, a violinist hit a bum note. Händel was so furious he lobbed a kettle drum at him. "OK," you might think, "he threw a drum, those can't be that heavy." But you see, a kettle drum is a solid copper kettle, at least half a meter wide, with a drumhead stretched over the top. The things are heavy. And again, he at one point attempted to hurl an obnoxious diva out through a window.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: For all his violent antics, he paid his musicians well, and would go Papa Wolf on their behalf on occasion.
  • Let's Put on a Show!: Messiah had its English premiere at a charity concert to benefit a hospital for orphans. Handel used profits from his music to support many charities, including a foundation for impoverished musicians.
  • Manly Tears: During his composition of Messiah, his servants found him crying his eyes out, so moved was he with religious passion. The original manuscript of the score even bears his own tear stains at certain passages.
  • Pocket Protector: The story goes that he got into a sword duel with another man, who managed to evade Händel's parries and thrust directly at his chest. The tip of the sword caught on a brass button and the blade flexed and snapped, thus ending the duel.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: Händel was a devout Protestant of Lutheran background. His British naturalisation required that he become an Anglican. He is now venerated as a saint in the Anglican and Lutheran liturgical calendars.
  • Spell My Name with an S: When Georg Friedrich Händel moved to England, he anglicized his name to George Frideric Handel.
  • The Show Must Go Wrong: The premiere of "Music For The Royal Fireworks" was a bit of a disaster, as rainy weather caused the fireworks to misfire. Stray rockets caused burns to several people, part of the pavilion caught fire, and some of the soldiers operating the cannons were badly injured.

Alternative Title(s): Georg Friedrich Handel