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George Frederick Handel, of whom Haydn once reverently said, "He is the master of us all," was born at Halle, in Lower Saxony, on February 23, 1685. His father was a surgeon, and sixty-three years of age at the time of his birth--a terribly severe old man, who, almost before his son was born, had determined that he should be a lawyer. The little child knew nothing of the fate before him, he only found that he was never allowed to go near a musical instrument, much as he wanted to hear its sweet sounds, and the obstinate father even took him away from the public day-school for the simple reason that the musical gamut was taught there in addition to ordinary reading, writing, and arithmetic.
But love always "finds out the way," and his mother or nurse managed to procure for him the forbidden delights; a small clavichord, or dumb spinet, with the strings covered with strips of cloth to deaden the sound, was found for the child, and this he used to keep hidden in the garret, creeping away to play it in the night-time, when everyone was asleep, or whenever his father was away from home doctoring his patients.
But, at last, when George Frederick was seven years of age, the old man was compelled to change his views. It happened in this way. He set out one day on a visit to the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels, where another son by a former marriage was a page. George Frederick had been teasing his father to let him go with him to see his elder brother, whom he had not yet met, but this was refused. When old Handel started by the stagecoach the next morning, the persistent little fellow was on the watch; he began running after it, and at length the father was constrained to stop the coach and take the boy in. So, though at the expense of a severe scolding, the child had his way and was allowed to go on to Saxe-Weissenfels. When there, the chapel, with the beautiful organ, was the great attraction, and George Frederick, as indomitable then as he was in after-life, found his way into the organ loft, and when the regular service was over, contrived to take the organist's place, and began a performance of his own; and strange to say, though he had not had the slightest training, a melody with chords and the correct harmonies was heard. The duke had not left the chapel, and noticing the difference in style from that of the ordinary organist, inquired as to the player, and when the little boy was brought to him he soon discovered, by the questions he put, the great passion for music which possessed the child. The duke, a sensible man, told the father it would be wrong to oppose the inclination of a boy who already displayed such extraordinary genius; and old Handel, either convinced, or at any rate submitting to the duke's advice, promised to procure for his son regular musical instruments. Handel never afterward forgot the debt of gratitude he owed to the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels for this intercession.
On his return to Halle he became the pupil of Zachau, the organist of the cathedral there. This man was an excellent teacher and a sound musician. Before the pupil was nine years old his instructor used to set him to write fugues and motets as exercises, and before long the boy was allowed to play the organ at the cathedral services on Sunday, whenever the elder musician was inclined to linger over his breakfast or to take a holiday. At last, when young Handel was nine years old, the master honestly confessed that his pupil knew more music than he himself did, and advised that he should be sent to Berlin for a course of further study there. Thither he accordingly went in the year 1696.
In Berlin the boy of eleven years was soon recognized as a prodigy. There he met two Italian composers of established reputation, Bononcini and Attilio Ariosti, both of whom he was to encounter in after-life, though under very different circumstances, in London. Bononcini, who was of a sour and jealous disposition, soon conceived a dislike for the gifted little fellow, and attempted to injure him by composing a piece for the harpsichord full of the most extraordinary difficulties, and then asking him to play it at sight. The boy, however, at once executed it without a mistake, and thus the malicious schemer was foiled by his own device. Attilio was of a different disposition; he praised the young musician to the skies, and was never weary of sitting by his side at the organ or harpsichord, and hearing him improvise for hours. The Elector of Brandenburg also conceived a great admiration for the boy's talents, and offered to send him to Italy. On old Handel being consulted, however, he pleaded that he was now an old man, and wished his son to remain near him. In consequence of this, probably much to the boy's disappointment, he was brought back to Halle, and there set to work again under his old master, Zachau.
Soon after this return his father died, in 1697, leaving hardly anything for his family, and young Handel had now to seriously bestir himself to make a living. With this object he went to Hamburg, where he obtained a place as second violin in the Opera-house. Soon after arriving there, the post of organist at Luebeck became vacant, and Handel was a candidate for it. But a peculiar condition was attached to the acceptance of the office; the new organist must marry the daughter of the old one! And, as Handel either did not approve of the lady, or of matrimony generally (and in fact he never was married), he promptly retired from the competition. At first, no one suspected the youth's talents, for he amused himself by pretending to be an ignoramus, until one day the accompanyist on the harpsichord (then the most important instrument in an orchestra) was absent, and young Handel took his place, astonishing everybody by his masterly touch. Probably this discovery aroused the jealousy of some of his brother-artists, for soon afterward a duel took place between him and Matheson, a clever composer and singer, who one night, in the midst of a quarrel on leaving the theatre, gave him a box on the ear; swords were drawn, and the duel took place there and then under the portico of the theatre. Fortunately Matheson's weapon was shivered by coming in contact with a metal button on his opponent's coat. Explanations were then offered, and the two adversaries became friends--indeed, close friends--afterward. "Almira, Queen of Castile," Handel's first opera, was brought out in Hamburg in 1705, and was followed by two others, "Nero," and "Daphne," all received with great favor, and frequently performed.
But the young musician determined to visit Italy as soon as possible, and after staying in Hamburg three years, and having, besides the money he sent his mother, saved two hundred ducats for travelling expenses, he was able to set off on the journey, then one of the great events in a musician's lifetime. He visited Florence, Venice, Rome, and Naples, in almost every city writing operas, which we are told were produced with the most brilliant success. At Venice an opera was sought for from him, and in three weeks he had written "Agrippina." When produced, the people received it with frantic enthusiasm, the theatre resounding with shouts of "Viva il caro Sassone!" (Long live the dear Saxon!) The following story illustrates the extraordinary fame he so quickly acquired in Italy. He arrived at Venice during the middle of the carnival, and was taken to a masked ball, and there played the harpsichord, still keeping on his mask. Domenico Scarlatti, the most famous harpsichord player of his age, on hearing him, exclaimed, "Why, it's the devil, or else the Saxon whom everyone is talking about!" In 1709 he returned to Hanover, and was appointed by the Elector George of Brunswick, afterward King George I., of England, his Court Capellmeister.
Handel's wanderings next led him to England, where he was treated with so much honor that he showed no great hurry to return to Hanover, and, in fact, he remained in England and coolly ignored his engagement as Capellmeister. But an awkward piece of retribution was at hand. The Elector of Hanover, on the death of Queen Anne, came to England as the new king, and Handel, his delinquent Capellmeister, could hardly expect to receive any share of the royal favor in future. With the help of a friend of his, Baron Kilmanseck, he determined, however, to make an attempt to conciliate the king, and accordingly he wrote twenty-five short concerted pieces of music, and made arrangements for these to be performed by musicians in a boat following the royal barge on the Thames, one day when the king went on an excursion up the river for a picnic. The king recognized the composer at once by his style, and spoke in terms of approbation of the music, and the news was quickly conveyed by his friend to the anxious musician. This is the story of the origin of the famous "Water Music." Soon afterward the king allowed Handel to appear before him to play the harpsichord accompaniments to some sonatas executed by Geminiani, a celebrated Italian violinist, and finally peace was made between them, Handel being appointed music-master to the royal children, and receiving an additional pension of #200. In 1726 a private Act of Parliament was passed, making George Frederick Handel a naturalized Englishman.
In the year 1720 a number of noblemen formed themselves into a company for the purpose of reviving Italian opera in London, at the Haymarket Theatre, and subscribed a capital of #50,000. The king himself subscribed #1,000, and allowed the society to take the name of the Royal Academy of Music, and at first everything seemed to promise the most brilliant success. Handel was appointed director of the music. Bononcini and Attilio Ariosti, his old acquaintances in Berlin, were also attracted by this new operatic venture to London, and their arrival was followed by a competition of a very novel character. The libretto of a new opera, "Muzio Scaevola," was divided between the three composers. Attilio was to put the first act to music, Bononcini the second, and Handel the third. We need hardly wonder that the victory is said to have rested with the last and youngest of the trio, although at this time the cabals against him, which afterward were to do him such grievous harm, had already commenced.
Handel still clung to the operatic speculation; and when he had to leave the Haymarket Theatre, which was given up to another Italian company with the famous Farinelli, from Lincoln's Inn Fields, undauntedly he changed to the Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre, and there commenced again. More operas were produced, with the one unvarying tale of fiasco, and at last, in 1737, having lost the whole of his hardly earned money, Handel was compelled to close the theatre, and, worse than all, to suspend payment for a time. Happily he now turned his thoughts to oratorio. "Saul" and "Israel in Egypt" were composed in quick succession; the last gigantic work being written in the almost incredibly short space of twenty-seven days. How great it is everyone now knows, but, at the time the colossal choruses were actually considered a great deal too heavy and monotonous; and Handel, always quick in resource, at the second performance introduced a number of operatic songs to make them go down better, and after the third performance the piece was withdrawn altogether. Fortunately, opinions have changed since then. These works were followed by his fine setting of Dryden's "Ode on St. Cecilia's Day," and Milton's "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso;" but it cannot be said that his pecuniary affairs were materially improved by their production.
The first performance of his greatest oratorio, the "Messiah," took place at Neale's Music Hall, in Dublin, on April 18, 1742, at mid-day, and, apropos of the absurdities of fashion, it may be noticed that the announcements contained the following request: "That ladies who honor this performance with their presence, will be pleased to come without hoops, as it will greatly increase the charity by making room for more company." The work was gloriously successful, and #400 were obtained the first day for the Dublin charities. Handel seems always to have had a special feeling with regard to this masterpiece of his--as if it were too sacred to be merely used for making money by, like his other works. He very frequently assisted at its performance for the benefit of the Foundling Hospital, and he left the score as a precious gift to the governor of that institution. This work alone brought no less a sum than #10,299 to the funds of the hospital. In this connection a fine saying of his may be repeated. Lord Kinnoul had complimented him on the noble "entertainment" which by the "Messiah" he had lately given the town. "My Lord," said Handel, "I should be sorry if I only entertained them--I wish to make them better." And when someone questioned him on his feelings when composing the "Hallelujah Chorus," he replied in his peculiar English, "I did think I did see all heaven before me, and the great God himself." What a fine saying that was of poor old George III., in describing the "pastoral symphony" in this oratorio--"I could see the stars shining through it!"
The now constant custom of the audience to rise and remain standing during the performance of this chorus, is said to have originated in the following manner: On the first production of the work in London, "the audience were exceedingly struck and affected by the music in general; but when that chorus struck up, 'For the Lord God Omnipotent' in the 'Hallelujah,' they were so transported that they all together, with the king (who happened to be present), started up and remained standing till the chorus ended." "This anecdote I had from Lord Kinnoul." So says Dr. Beattie, the once famous poet, in one of his letters.
The "Messiah" was commenced on August 22, 1741, finished on September 12th, and the orchestration filled up two days afterward--the whole work thus being completed in twenty-three days. Handel was fifty-six years old at the time.
The next ten years of the life of the "Goliath of Music," as he has been called, are marked by some of the most splendid achievements of his genius. "Samson," the "Dettingen Te Deum," "Joseph," "Belshazzar," "The Occasional Oratorio," "Judas Maccabeus," "Joshua," "Solomon," and, "Theodora," being composed by him during this time, when, already an old man, it might have been thought that he would have taken some repose after the labors of so toilsome and troubled a life. But, oak-like, he was one of those who mature late; like Milton, his greatest works were those of his old age.
But a terrible misfortune was approaching--his eyesight was failing. The "drop serene," of which Milton speaks so pathetically, had fallen on his eyes, and at the time when, in February, 1752, he was composing his last work, "Jephtha" (the one containing "Deeper and Deeper Still," and "Waft her, Angels"), the effort in tracing the lines is, in the original MS., very painfully apparent. Soon afterward he submitted to three operations, but they were in vain, and henceforth all was to be dark to him. His sole remaining work was now to improvise on the organ, and to play at performances of his oratorios. There is a pathetic story told of an incident that occurred on one occasion, when "Samson" was given. While the magnificent air,
Total eclipse! no sun, no moon!
All dark, amidst the blaze of noon.
O glorious light! no cheering ray
To glad my eyes with welcome day.
Why thus deprived thy prime decree?
Sun, moon, and stars are dark to me--
was being sung by Beard, the tenor, the blind old man, seated at the organ, was seen to tremble and grow pale, and then, when he was led forward to the audience to receive their applause, tears were in the eyes of nearly everyone present at the sight. It was like the scene that is described in Beethoven's life on the occasion of that composer's appearance, when almost totally deaf, to conduct his great Choral Symphony at Vienna.
One night, on returning home from a performance of the "Messiah" at Covent Garden, Handel was seized with sudden weakness and retired hurriedly to bed, from which he was never to rise again. He prayed that he might breathe his last on Good Friday, "in hope of meeting his God, his sweet Lord and Saviour on the day of his resurrection." And strangely enough his wish was granted, for on Good Friday, April 13, 1759, he quietly passed away from this life, being then seventy-four years of age. His remains were laid in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, and the place is marked by a statue by Roubilliac, representing him leaning over a table covered with musical instruments, his hand holding a pen, and before him is laid the "Messiah," open at the words, "I know that my Redeemer liveth."