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Music in London:
George Frideric Handel
George Frideric Handel
Born in Halle, Germany,
at eighteen Handel
moved to Hamburg
where he played violin
and harpsichord in the
opera orchestra. There,
and later during a fouryear sojourn in Italy, he
absorbed the musical
style and theatrical
conventions of Italian
opera. Finally, he moved
to London, where he
composed Italian operas,
oratorios, ceremonial
music for the royal
family, and much
instrumental music.
• Recall that a dance suite is a collection of dances,
almost invariably in binary form (AB), all in a single
key for a solo instrument or a full orchestra. Handel
wrote two suites for orchestra, Water Music and
Music for the Royal Fireworks, and two collections
of eight suites for harpsichord.
• Water Music: Handel's set of three dance suites
featuring the horn, the trumpet, and the flute (in F
major, D major, and G major and minor,
respectively). It was first performed in 1717 by fifty
musicians situated on a barge floating on the
Thames River. Next to the orchestra was the boat
carrying King George I, who had commissioned the
work in an effort to improve his standing with his
• French Horn: in the early eighteenth century, a natural
instrument (without valves) with a smaller bell, and thus a smaller
sound, than the modern horn.
• Horn fifths: a characteristic figure in which two horns slide back
and forth through sixths, fifths, and thirds, with occasional
• Royal Academy of Music: a publicly-held stock
company whose main investor was the king for the
production of Italian opera—specifically, opera seria.
• Opera seria: literally, "serious opera," a fully sung
Italian opera based on historical or mythological
sources featuring high and noble characters such as
royalty, heroes, and gods. A singers' opera, opera
seria required highly paid virtuoso singers. In
London, it was Handel's job to recruit such virtuosi
(all Italian) from opera houses around Europe.
At Handel's time, castrati were among the most demanded and wellpaid musicians in Europe. In fact, they sang the most important male
roles on the Baroque stage. (Recall that a castrato was a male singer
whose larynx and vocal chords had remained small as a result of
castration, usually performed between the age of eight and ten.)
Among the most famous castrati was Francesco Bernardi, called
Senesino, who sang the role of Caesar in Handel's Giulio Cesare.
Handel and Oratorio
• After the failure of the Royal Academy of Music,
Handel increasingly turned his attention to the
oratorio. A large-scale, multi-movement composition
setting a sacred text, oratorio provided extraliturgical enlightenment for a public that grew
gradually more critical of Italian opera.
• Unlike Italian opera, oratorio appealed to the
growingly devout English middle-class as
– it was sung in the local language rather than Italian;
– it did not involve elaborate staging, costumes, or acting;
– it did not require expensive and often irascible castrati or
prima donnas (and, consequently, the extravagant vocal
writing typical of opera);
– it featured the chorus much more prominently, which
offered an opportunity to draw on the English choral
Messiah (1741)
• Handel's most popular oratorio, composed in only
three-and-a-half weeks in the summer of 1741.
Drawing on the Old and New Testaments, Messiah
tells the story of Christ in three parts:
1. Prophecy and birth of Christ;
2. crucifixion, descent into Hell, and resurrection;
3. the Day of Judgment and the promise of eternal life.
Pastoral aria: a slow aria that evokes the fictional and rustic landscape
and characters of the pastoral through distinctive musical characteristics
such as
• parallel thirds moving mostly in step-wise motion;
• a lilting rhythm in compound meter;
• a slow harmonic rhythm with many subdominant chords.