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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Handel Before England: Part 3

In this article we conclude our three-part series exploring the life and work of George Frideric Handel before he went to England. The first 25 years of Handel’s life are often glossed over, with attention being given to his operas, oratorios and orchestral works composed after he went to London in 1710. But his first quarter century laid the foundations for his international fame, and as we’ve seen in the past two instalments, he was a quick learner who never wasted an opportunity or failed to learn from an experience.

Pivotal to his early development are the three and a bit years he spent in Italy. Arriving late in 1706, he rapidly made his way into the most exalted circles of artistic patronage in Rome. This led to the miraculous works of 1707: his secular cantatas and serenatas for wealthy Roman patrons, his dazzling sacred music for the Carmelites, and his first opera for Italy, Rodrigo, which premiered in Florence probably in the October of that year.

This brings us to the winter of 1707/08, and again Handel disappears from the documentary record. It’s possible he returned to Hamburg to supervise the premieres of his operas Florindo and Daphne; the performances are known to have happened but his presence is not documented. Even though it would be very unusual for new works like this to be performed without the involvement of the composer, I think it more likely that he stayed in Italy. Performing Florindo and Daphne back in Hamburg wouldn’t have been an attractive proposition after the triumphs, both musical and social, of his first year in Italy, and it’s entirely possible he made the opportunity to attend the winter opera season in Venice, or some other musically attractive option closer to hand.

The next evidence we have of Handel’s whereabouts is when he helpfully added the location and completion date to the score of a new secular cantata: Rome, 3 March, 1708. So, back in Rome, and working again for the wealthy Cardinals and the Marquis Ruspoli, the 23 year old composer was about to produce one of his first true masterpieces. On Easter Day, 8 April, 1708, in the Ruspoli palace, Handel directed the first performance of his second Italian oratorio, a worthy successor to the secular Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno written the year before. The new work was sacred, and appropriate for Easter Day: La Resurrezione (The Resurrection).

The three Marys at the Tomb of Christ, Konstanz Minster, Baden-Württemberg (1470)

Here, re-using but also vastly improving many musical ideas from earlier works, he produced a cohesive and dazzling dramatic oratorio for five solo singers and a very large orchestra. The principal violinist was none other than the elderly Arcangelo Corelli, who apparently clashed with the young composer but who must have loved the lavish violin solos provided for him in the score. The opening aria for the Angel, which grows straight out of the opening sonata is a tour de force for the singer who proclaims the victory of Christ over the powers of Hell. [listen]

Howard: Arcangelo Corelli (1697)

La Resurrezione, despite being sacred, is intensely dramatic and closely related to opera in every respect but for the fact that it was unacted. The way Handel portrays the two immortal characters (the dazzling, powerful Angel and the blustering, oafish Lucifer) is completely different to the music for the three mortals (Mary Magdalene, Mary Cleopas, and St John). And the orchestral colours are drawn from a diverse palette which includes muted oboes, viola da gamba, violin solos and rich instrumental doublings. Many features of the score are strikingly modern, such as this aria for Mary Magdalene in Part Two which not only displaces the accents in 3/8 but adds in bars of 4/4 as well. [listen]

I had the privilege of conducting the first (and to date - as far as I'm aware - the only) Australian performance of La Resurrezione in Australia, in St Paul's Cathedral in Melbourne in 2001.

Discussions of Handel’s time in Italy focus, understandably, on the three major centres in which he had his greatest success: Rome, Florence and Venice. But one other city provided an opportunity for him to not only write a major work, but also to have his first encounter with a story to which he would return more than once later in his career. Naples, 225 km south east of Rome, was a major musical centre - more so than Rome - and it was for Naples that he wrote the serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (Acis, Galatea and Polyphemus). Like other works Handel wrote in Rome, this was a large-scale dramatic work for solo singers (in this case, three) and orchestra which was given as a concert work and not acted. It is, on paper, a one-act concert opera.


This was yet again another highly prestigious commission, the event being the wedding of the Duke of Alvito to Beatrice Sanseverino, niece of the Duchess of Laurenzano. The choice of a pastoral subject was completely in keeping with Neapolitan taste at the time, and as in La Resurrezione, Handel shows his innate dramatic flair at every turn. The soprano is Acis, the alto Galatea, and the bass is Polyphemus, and the treatment of the story is very different to the English versions the composer would write in England.

Poussin: Acis and Galatea (c. 1630)

An interesting link between the Naples Aci and La Resurrezione is the bass voice part. Lucifer and Polyphemus are both written for extraordinary singers who must have had incredible agility, dramatic flair and a vast range. Polyphemus, in particular, requires a singer with a range of two and a half octaves, spanning what we would call the low bass and high baritone ranges. Furthermore, Handel writes incredibly wide leaps for the singer, from the top to the bottom of the range, a feat requiring the utmost vocal control. It spans low D to high A - fully two and a half octaves - and at the end of the B section of this particular aria the singer is required to leap directly from the high A to the low D. [listen]

The parts for Acis and Galatea are superbly written as well. Whoever the singers in the original cast were, they were clearly first-rate and would have been gratified by the music Handel gave them.

Handel probably spent the June and July of 1708 in Naples before returning to Rome. There he resumed, briefly, his work for Ruspoli and other nobles in providing yet more secular cantatas for their weekly gatherings, but reading between the lines one gets the impression the young man was itching for bigger fish to fry. Just before he left Rome, he provided yet another large scale serenata for Ruspoli. This glorious work, Olinto pastore (The Shepherd Olinto), requires three singers, and the text involves a complex series of metaphors designed to praise the Pope, Clement XI. From a musical point of view, the piece contains fascinating allusions to past and future music in Handel’s output. Some music from the recent Aci from Naples is re-used (a safe bet seeing it would be unlikely anyone in Rome would have been present at the Naples performance). But more interestingly, a number of ideas more familiar from some of Handel’s later operas have their first incarnation here. This aria from the serenata uses ideas which are very familiar from Alcina, still more than 25 years away. Even the first line of the text ("Tornami a vagghegiar") is the same. [listen]

Pope Clement XI

Handel left Rome in September of 1708 shortly after performing the Olinto serenata for Ruspoli. There follows the largest gap in our knowledge of his movements in Italy as we have no firm evidence as to his whereabouts for a year. There is conjecture that, again, he may have visited Florence or Venice, but his movements for 1709 are largely unknown. But after this silence - during which he must clearly have been hard at work composing - comes the last and possibly greatest triumph of his Italian visit, the premiere season in Venice of his opera Agrippina, described by the Handel scholar Donald Burrows as “his first operatic masterpiece”.

Canaletto: The Grand Canal in Venice from Palazzo Flangini to Campo San Marcuola (c. 1738)

In Agrippina the 24 year old Handel was on familiar ground. Venetian opera librettos were similar to those he knew from Hamburg in that they combined comic and serious elements, and required short, fast-paced arias. Agrippina is no trifle - its three acts contain more than three and a half hours of music - but given all that he had learned and experienced in Italy since arriving in late 1706 it shouldn’t be surprising that all the disparate threads of those years should reach a climax in this brilliant work.

Agrippina contains reworked ideas from many of his earlier works, but from the astounding overture it’s clear this man wanted to impress. And he clearly had a first rate principal oboe in the orchestra at Venice’s Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo... [listen]

And from there the story unfolds, loosely based on Roman history and involving all sorts of plots and intrigues - with more than a few laughs - and it clearly went down well with the Venetian audience. The opera opened on 26 December 1709 and ran until early February 1710, clocking up about 27 performances in that time.

In the cast of Agrippina was the soprano Margherita Durastanti. She had already sung for Handel, taking on the role of Mary Magdalene in the first performance of La Resurrezione in Rome the year before. She wasn’t permitted to sing in the later performances of that work, though, as the Pope ordered Ruspoli to replace her with a castrato.

Caricature of Margherita Durastanti

In the Venetian opera there were no such constraints. She was the prima donna at the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo and triumphed in the title role. It’s also fascinating that one of Mary Magdalene’s arias from the oratorio appears - completely unchanged in both music and text - in the opera. [listen]

As a foil to Agrippina in the convoluted plot, Poppea has been described as the first of Handel’s sex kittens, and there’s no doubting he had great fun writing for this outrageous flirt. [listen]

Handel directed all the performances of Agrippina, so was in Venice until the end of the run in February 1710, the month in which he turned 25. But the Venetian winter season was the one most popular with international figures, including young, wealthy nobles doing the “grand tour”, and it was the perfect time for him to strut his stuff before an audience drawn from across Europe. In fact it would not be an exaggeration to say that because of the alignment of the success of Agrippina and the large international audience in the city at the same time, Handel would have had an international reputation by the end of the run.

This would have led to him establishing some very useful contacts. It’s known that Prince Ernst Georg of Hanover (brother of the Elector Georg) was in Venice at the time, as was the English ambassador to Venice, Charles Montagu, Earl of Manchester. Another key person from Hanover who was almost certainly there was Baron Kielmansegge, the Elector’s Deputy Master of the Horse. Britain and Hanover both maintained strong connections with Venice, and given our knowledge of subsequent events, there seems little doubt that both Hanover and England were keen to secure Handel’s services. Sophia, the Dowager Electress of Hanover, was next in line to the British throne thanks to the 1701 Act of Settlement which barred Catholics from the succession, and her son, the Elector Georg, was next in line after her. Hanover clearly wanted him, and he considered Hanover.

Handel made his way north from Venice towards the German states once more, passing through Innsbruck on his way to Hanover. On 16 June 1710 he was appointed Kapellmeister to the Hanover court at a salary of 1,000 thalers. The strange thing is that he was almost immediately granted a year’s leave of absence, whereupon he followed up further contacts in Düsseldorf in July before heading to London for the first time.

Why Hanover? And why the leave of absence? It’s clear that Handel wanted to write opera, and London was hugely attractive to him as a city where Italian opera was only just starting to take hold. He saw it as a market he could develop and thrive in. The evidence suggests that he (along with other German dignitaries from the court of Hanover) made their way to London during the final years of Queen Anne’s reign to prepare the ground for the establishment of the new Hanoverian dynasty. Anne was unwell and it was assumed she would die sooner rather than later. In 1714, shortly before her death, Dowager Electress Sophia died as well, leaving Georg as the heir to the British throne, a role he duly fulfilled as George I. There is evidence that Handel, with many of his countrymen, sent back intelligence to Hanover on the state of British politics, on Queen Anne’s health, and on the public mood. This would explain why Georg was content to appoint him as his Kapellmeister only to allow him immediate leave to go to London. And for Handel, the Hanover salary would help support him in London while he established himself and started to get work.

Elector Georg of Hanover (1706), later George I

Handel remained on the Hanover payroll for three years but only spent a little over a year of that time actually in Hanover. The musical establishment there was small, and certainly there was no opportunity to write the sort of large-scale works he’d been used to creating in Italy. But music associated with this appointment does survive, and it’s only recently been able to be connected with Hanover by virtue of studies of the paper on which it was written.

Handel’s admirers at the court of Hanover included all the leading members of the royal family: Dowager Electress Sophia, Elector Georg (later George I), and the Electoral Prince and Princess (later George II and Queen Caroline). Scholars believe a number of the composer’s vocal duets were written at this time, charming chamber works which show an effortless skill in vocal writing. [listen]

Highly appropriate for the intimate gatherings where these vocal duets would have been performed are many of Handel’s sonatas which, though published later in London, have been dated to the Hanover court by paper analysis. This short, three-movement violin sonata (HWV358), is one such work. Remembering Handel was a violinist as well as virtuoso keyboard player, it’s possible he played this himself for his royal patrons. [listen]

The trio sonata HWV405 is another work recently consigned to the Hanover period, and I’ll provide this link to conclude our journey through Handel’s years before England. [listen]

Georg Friedrich Händel, later George Frideric Handel, brought together disparate strands of musical source material to create not only a unique and recognisable sound, but also a unique and towering career. Lutheran church music, raucous Hamburg and Venetian comic opera, elegant secular cantatas for Roman nobility, formal opera seria for Florence, church music for the centre of the Catholic world, and intimate sonatas and chamber duets...all these types of music flowed from his pen before he set foot in England, and the experiences which led to their creation in turn formed the Handel we know better after 1710. The Handel of Rinaldo, Julius Caesar and Alcina, of Israel in Egypt, Messiah and Solomon, of the Water Music and the Music for the Royal Fireworks, of the organ concertos and the concerti grossi, this famous Handel grew out of the energetic, determined and stunningly gifted young man from Halle, and we’re so much the richer for it.

While I use many sources in my writings on Handel, my primary source is, and has been for many years, Donald Burrows' biography of Handel in the Master Musicians series, published in 1994 by Oxford University Press.

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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