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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Handel Before England: Part 1

During my later years with the ABC I had the privilege of indulging my passion for the life and work of Handel on a number of occasions. In 2014 I was asked to make a six-part series which we called Handel’s English World. This was presented as a special series, separate from Keys To Music. It focused on Handel’s transformation from a German composer of Italian opera to an English institution over the period 1710-59, and surveyed his English language works.

In 2015 I followed this up with a series of four Keys To Music programs called Handel’s London Operas. This surveyed all of Handel’s Italian operas written after his arrival in London in 1710.

Then I completed the “trilogy” in 2016 with a three-part Keys To Music series called Handel Before England. This looked at Handel’s first 25 years, before his arrival in London, a vital but often ignored period which is essential to an understanding of the man we all think we know.

I’ve decided to share the scripts for all these programs in this blog, but will do so in their chronological order of content rather than in the order I presented them on air.


The name Friedrich Weidemann is largely forgotten today. He was the flute player in the opera orchestra directed in London by George Frideric Handel in the years around 1730. Weidemann was a friend of Hugh Hume, Earl of Marchmont, and he was also the Earl’s flute teacher.

Marchmont visited Germany in the late 1720s or early 1730s and while there discovered a manuscript containing a set of trio sonatas for the oboe written nearly 30 years before. On his return to England he gave these to Weidemann as a gift, who in turn showed them to Handel. According to the music historian Charles Burney, who wrote about the incident decades later, Handel’s response to seeing this manuscript was, “I used to write like the Devil in those days, but chiefly for the oboe, which was my favourite instrument”.

And so the idea was born that these sonatas were in fact Handel’s earliest surviving works. Weidemann later wrote on his copy of the manuscript - which is now in the British Library - that Handel had written these sonatas when he was about ten years old. [listen]

Are these sonatas the work of Handel’s boyhood? Many have doubted this story based on the evidence of the music itself, which is mature and hardly possible for a boy of ten to have written in 1695. Recent techniques have identified the paper as being of north German origin (it comes from a mill in Hanover), dating from the early years of the 18th century, meaning that if Handel did write them, his age was certainly closer to 20 than 10. Opinions are still sharply divided to this day.

But all this raises the bigger question of the famous composer’s origins and early years. His arrival in London in late 1710 (at the age of 25) was the start of his international fame, and most interest in Handel focuses on his life after that point, but his early years tell a fascinating story in their own right. This article is the first in a series of three which will explore his life and work before he went to England. This is a Handel few people know, full of stunning music rarely heard today. But it’s the story which explains much of the greatness that was to come.

And so we go to the city of Halle, in the eastern part of modern Germany. In 1685, when Handel was born, Halle was part of the combined Electorate of Brandenburg and the Duchy of Prussia, and since medieval times it was associated with the harvesting of salt. It had been a stronghold of the Lutheran Reformation since the earliest years of the movement, and subsequently a centre for a particularly strict form of Lutheranism known as Pietism.

Halle (1686)

At the centre of religious life in Halle was the church known variously as the Marienkirche (St Mary’s Church), the Liebfrauenkirche (Church of Our Dear Lady) or the Marktkirche (Market Church). The year before Handel was born, a new organist was appointed to the church, the 18 year old Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, who hailed from nearby Leipzig. Zachow is largely remembered today simply as Handel’s teacher, but he was a gifted composer in his own right. This is part of one of his cantatas. [listen]

Halle Marienkirche

Handel’s father was Georg Händel, a barber-surgeon in the service of the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels. So while he was commoner, the elder Händel moved in royal circles and was clearly a leading figure in the city. The composer’s mother - Georg Händel’s second wife - was Dorothea Taust, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. Georg was 63 when the composer was born on 23 February 1685; Dorothea was 34.

Record of Handel's baptism

Handel’s birth name was Georg Friedrich Händel, with an umlaut on the “a” in his surname. This was officially his name until he became a British subject in 1727, removing the umlaut and Anglicising his given names to George Frideric (not "Frederick"). English speakers tend to use the English form of his name even when discussing his life before 1727, as these articles do. Conversely, German speakers tend to use the German form regardless. Going by the way Handel’s name was printed in British newspapers later in his life, it seems that he maintained the more Germanic pronunciation; articles often referred to him as “Mr Hendel”.

The Handel House, Halle, where the composer was born

Details about the young Handel depend on a few sources, including John Mainwaring’s Memoirs of 1760. These include stories about his early life, which must have come from the elderly composer himself, but the dates are often muddled and details are sometimes unreliable. However it does seem that Handel’s father didn’t approve of a musical career for his son, leading the boy to practise secretly on a clavichord in the attic. I sometimes wonder, if this is true, if the boy played this suite by Zachow in his clandestine practice sessions (or subsequently). More than 40 years later he borrowed the main theme of the last movement (starting at 7’10 in the linked recording here) for the last of his opus 6 concertos... [listen]

Halle Marienkirche

Handel accompanied his father on a journey to the Ducal court when he was about nine, and the story goes that the Duke heard him playing the organ. The Duke persuaded his father to give him a musical education under Zachow, which was excellent advice. There was probably no-one better qualified to take the boy in hand and give him a solid grounding in organ, harpsichord and the rudiments of composition.

If Handel was about nine or ten when he started his lessons with Zachow, then that means he had been the organist’s pupil for about two years when his father died in February 1697. This had positive and negative effects on his career prospects. It removed any paternal opposition to his musical endeavours, but as the only surviving son of the marriage, the boy would have had an obligation to support his family. (Handel was in fact devoted to his mother and visited her whenever he could in later life. Dorothea died in 1730.) His father had wanted the boy to study Law, which in those days didn’t necessarily imply a legal career. Law degrees were very much like an Arts degree today, more general and encompassing a number of possible disciplines. Handel even went so far as to enrol in Law at Halle University in February 1702, the month in which he turned 17. But things changed dramatically only a few weeks later when he was appointed organist of the Halle Cathedral Church. This was a relatively easy position as the church was Calvinist and music played a very small role in the liturgy; there was certainly no opportunity to compose cantatas, for example.

Domkirche (Cathedral Church) Halle

After a year’s probation his position at the Cathedral Church wasn’t renewed, but by that time it would certainly have been clear to him that he needed to spread his wings in order to follow his dream of a musical career. It was around 1702 that he visited Berlin (170 km away to the north east) where, unlike Halle, there was a flourishing court opera. Opera was the craze of the day, all over Europe, and in Berlin Handel (according to Mainwaring) met one of the leading opera composers of the time, Giovanni Bononcini (fifteen years Handel’s senior). Their paths would later cross again in London, but right now, Handel would have encountered Bononcini’s graceful, easy style as a starry-eyed newcomer. [listen]

One of the indications that the encounter with Bononcini’s music was important to the young Handel is the fact that one of the earliest works which can definitely be accredited to him contains melodic material from one of Bononcini’s Berlin operas. Later published as the second sonata in Handel’s Opus 2, this was claimed by Charles Jennens (who wrote the texts for a number of Handel’s oratorios, including Messiah) to have been written when the composer was only 14. It certainly isn’t that early, but it seems to date from shortly after this Berlin visit. [listen]

Schoonjans: Giovanni Bononcini

From this point onwards, Handel set his sights on working in opera. In the summer of 1703, aged 18, he left Halle and would only ever return as an occasional visitor. His next stop was about 340 km away to the north - Hamburg - where the only regular opera company in Germany which operated outside the courts was located. At the head of the company was a composer and entrepreneur who perhaps more than any other single person would influence Handel’s future style of composition and management. His name was Reinhard Keiser.

This overture to one of Keiser’s operas postdates Handel’s time in Hamburg, but it shows the brilliance and individuality of Keiser’s style. Keiser was of supreme importance in Hamburg and had an international reputation as a theatre manager as well as a composer. He wrote about 70 operas in addition to an enormous amount of other music: secular cantatas, church music and instrumental works.

Hamburg opera in the first decade of the 18th century had evolved into its own unique form, quite different from the tightly formal structures of Italian or French opera. Comic and serious elements rubbed shoulders in the same work, and the cast usually sang in both Italian and German within the same piece, with occasionally some French thrown in as well. The operas contained upwards of forty arias, although they were usually very short, and there was always a lot of ballet.

Keiser’s style of vocal writing was very instrumental rather than vocal. By this I mean that the singer’s lines were often angular and more suited to, say, a violin or an oboe. He was by no means alone in this; Vivaldi’s vocal lines in his operas are similar in this respect.

Sketch of the Hamburg opera theatre (1726)

In 1703, the year Handel arrived in Hamburg, Keiser’s opera Claudius had its premiere. Handel initially played in the second violins of the orchestra and it’s certain he knew Claudius. An aria from the first act (La speme di vendetta) would be the inspiration for one of his most dazzling works in Italy in a few years’ time. A selection of Keiser’s music, including some from Claudius, can he found here.

Handel soon graduated from the second violin section to playing continuo harpsichord. Even before the age of 20 he was a natural networker. He knew how to progress up the ladder and he knew he had the talent to back up his claims.

Galli: Hamburg seen from the River Elbe (c. 1680)

In 1704 Keiser had to leave Hamburg because of rising debts associated with the opera company. While he was out of town (working in Weissenfels) the company was managed by his business partner, and this allowed younger composers the chance to show what they could do. A famous incident occurred at this time, in a performance of the opera Cleopatra by Handel’s friend and colleague Johann Mattheson. Mattheson was also a fine tenor, and he sang the role of Antony in the opera while Handel directed from the harpsichord. After Antony’s death scene, Mattheson liked to take over at the harpsichord and direct the rest of the performance, but one night Handel refused to give way.

This resulted in a sword fight, and a number of sources attest to the fact that this nearly led to a tragedy, but for the fact that Mattheson’s sword was prevented from running Handel through because it hit a button on his coat. This apparent intervention of fate led to the two men being better friends than ever.

Johann Mattheson

This period also saw Handel given the chance to write his first opera. The libretto, Almira, Queen of Castille, had already been set to music by Keiser himself, but because of the need to flee his creditors, it hadn’t been performed. Handel was therefore asked to provide his own version, and this was premiered in Hamburg on 8 January 1705. It was a huge success and ran for about 20 performances.

Almira is totally unlike Handel’s better-known London operas. It follows the Hamburg style, with a mixed Italian/German text and a lot of ballet music. It’s also very long, containing more than three and a half hours of music, but that was the norm in Hamburg at the time. Handel was not quite 20 when it hit the stage, and as might be expected, there are some youthful infelicities. But it’s a monumental achievement and indicates much of the theatrical genius which was inherent in the young composer.

There are a few spots which show Handel’s inexperience in writing on such a large scale, and also that he had picked up Keiser’s trait of writing for voices as if they were instruments. This aria sung by Edilia in the first act is perhaps the most notorious. High Cs abound, and there’s even a phrase in which the poor singer is required to enter on high C. Patricia Rozario gives a brave account of this insanely demanding part of the score. And as was common in Hamburg, we have an aria in Italian, preceded by a recitative in German. [listen]

But there is much in Almira which foreshadows the theatrical giant Handel would soon become. This beautiful aria for Osman in the second act is touching and beautifully written for the voice. [listen]

Handel’s earliest music apart from the operas is notoriously difficult to date accurately. There is evidence for the performance of the operas apart from the scores themselves, but smaller works with a less-public face are harder to pin down. Handel’s claim as quoted by Burney - that the oboe was his favourite instrument - may or may not be true, but there’s no doubting the man knew how to write for the oboe throughout his life. And even if the six early trio sonatas are not by Handel, there is an early oboe concerto which is definitely by him which some scholars date to the Hamburg period. Now traditionally called Handel’s oboe concerto no. 3, this four-movement work displays a sure hand, with arresting rhythms and memorable tunes.

The third movement is a gentle French-style sarabande - exactly like the ballet music in Almira - while the last movement is the earliest incarnation of music Handel was to re-use several times later in his career. [listen]

Modern Hamburg

Handel’s next four operas, three of which were performed in Hamburg, are almost entirely lost apart from some instrumental movements (mainly dance suites) which can be connected with them. In late February 1705, six weeks after the first performance of Almira, Handel’s Nero had its premiere, but the music for this is completely lost apart from some pieces which may or may not be from it. It’s a mystery piece we know virtually nothing about.

Then, in early 1706, he wrote an enormous opera which, because of its length, was divided into two separate operas intended for performance on consecutive nights (something Berlioz had to do with The Trojans a century and a half later). The two operas became known as Florindo and Daphne and again, until recently, it was thought that all the music for them was lost. But in 1983 the scholar Bernd Baselt showed that a number of dances in manuscripts held in the British Library originated from these works, making it possible to hear a tantalising portion of them.

The overture presumed to be for Florindo - like the overture to Almira - is in the form known as the “French” overture. Derived from composers such as Lully in the 17th century, the French overture always had a slow and stately introduction, usually with what we call a “dotted” rhythm [long, short, long, short, long]. This is repeated, then followed by a fast section which is usually fugal, where one part starts, joined by another playing a similar theme, then another. and so on. These movements weren’t usually strict fugues but just started that way.

Having learned the French overture from Keiser and seen it in action in Hamburg, Handel almost never began a theatre work of his own without one for the rest of his life. Nearly all his operas and oratorios for the rest of his life would start with a French overture.

Even though the twin operas Florindo and Daphne were composed in early 1706, they weren’t performed straight away. In fact when they were performed, Handel was far away.

After completing the operas, the young genius from Halle clearly felt that despite the vibrant opera scene in Hamburg, he needed to go to the source of Italian opera, Italian music and Italian singing: Italy itself. Late in 1706 he left Hamburg and made his way south, although what plans he had in place before he left, and what contacts he had in Italy, are not known to us today. We do know enough about Handel though that, even at age 21, he very likely felt as Oscar Wilde supposedly did when he arrived in America and was asked if he anything to declare: “I have nothing to declare except my genius”.

By December 1706 Handel was in Rome, and it’s thought that he probably passed through Venice and Florence on his way there. Certainly all three cities would be the focus of his time in Italy, a time in which he would readily “declare his genius” and evolve into a mature composer able to fulfil the dreams of the boy playing the organ in a Halle church not so many years before. We’ll pick up the story of Handel before England from his arrival in Italy in our next instalment.

Given the loss of the scores of Nero, Florindo and Daphne, it’s hard to assess the state of Handel’s development as a composer by the time he left Hamburg. It’s very likely that he learned quickly to overcome the shortcomings evident in Almira, his first opera. But as the major work surviving from the Hamburg period, Almira will conclude this first instalment of our series exploring Handel before England. This aria comes from the second act and provides more evidence of his love of the oboe. And yet again we hear music that the composer will recycle in Italy. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in September, 2016.

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