Handel's reputation lay for many years with his orchestral works and, more especially, with his English oratorios, a genre he both invented and helped establish. In recent years, however, his dramatic achievements as a composer of opera have been rediscovered, and in contributing to every musical genre of his time, he can be regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Baroque period.
Born in Halle on 23 February 1685, the son of a barber-surgeon, Handel was initially discouraged from studying music. However, the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels recognised his talent and persuaded his father to allow him a musical education.
After his training was completed, Handel left for the great opera centres of Europe in 1703, beginning with Hamburg. Hamburg contained the only regular opera company outside the royal courts and, learning a great deal from the opera composer Reinhard Keiser, he composed the highly successful Almira.
Handel's tour of operatic centres then took him to Italy, where he completed works for Ferdinando de' Medici in Florence and the Marquess Francesco Maria Ruspoli in Rome. A papal decree had banned public performance of opera in Rome, so Handel turned his hand instead to oratorio and cantatas. It's possible that Handel also formed the only romantic attachment of his life in these years, to the singer Vittoria Tarquini.
Returning to Hanover, he was appointed Kappellmeister to the electoral court in 1710, but almost immediately set off for Düsseldorf and then, in the autumn, arrived in London. Composing the first Italian operas specifically for London, Handel scored a major success with Rinaldo in 1711.
He returned to London again at the end of 1712, composing further operas and obtaining commissions for choral music from the monarch. In providing a Te Deum and Jubilate to celebrate the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, he incurred the displeasure of the elector and was dismissed from his Hanoverian post, though he was reconciled with the elector when he became George I of England the following year.
London now became Handel's adopted home for the rest of his life; in February 1727 he even applied for naturalized citizenship. Aside from a growing number of operas, he composed keyboard music, Italian cantatas and in 1717, the famous Water Music.
After composing the first English oratorio, Esther, in 1718 Handel embarked on the foundation of an Italian opera company, the Royal Academy of Music. Having secured singers from abroad, the company's first season opened in 1720. It gave seven seasons of performances, including many works by Handel such as Guilio Cesare, until 1728 when it briefly disbanded. 1727 had seen a particularly nasty moment when two rival sopranos, Cuzzoni and Faustina, had come to blows on stage in front of the Prince of Wales.
Handel was also given the honorary appointment of Composer of Music for His Majesty's Chapel Royal in 1723; for the coronation of George II he provided four anthems, including Zadok the Priest, performed at every coronation of a British monarch since.
The Royal Academy reformed in 1729 but was now competing with a rival opera company, the Opera of the Nobility. Nevertheless, Handel produced some of his greatest operas, including Ariodante and Alcina in 1735. Revered as a public figure, the increasing difficulties of staging opera prompted Handel to turn to oratorio, a genre that could combine his mastery of vocal forms with his genius for orchestral music and concertos.
Saul opened a season of 'Oratorios and Odes' at the King's Theatre in January 1739 and by December 1741, Handel had practically abandoned opera. A steady stream of oratorios, including the ever-popular Messiah, issued from the composer's pen and in 1743, he began a regular oratorio season of Lenten concerts at the Covent Garden Theatre.
Despite his failing health, Handel continued to produce masterpieces. His Music for the Royal Fireworks, for example, dates from 1749 and was written to celebrate the Peace of Aix-la-Chappelle. By 1751 his eyesight was failing and by January 1753 he was completely blind, forcing a number of restrictions on his activities as a composer. Handel eventually died on 14 April 1759 and was buried in Westminster Abbey in a service attended by 3,000 people.
Although his fame as a composer was well established by the late 1730s his reputation continued to grow after his death. Based mainly on the oratorios Messiah, Samson and Judas Maccabaeus, which continued to dominate oratorio seasons, he was considered the epitome of musical excellence combined with sacred devotion. Great Handel commemorations were held regularly and the veneration of his oratorios continued throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
However, Handel's dramatic skills were almost completely forgotten until the mid-twentieth century. Since then, however, the musical community has made amends and by 2000 all of Handel's operas had been given stage revivals. His star, it seems, is once again in the ascendancy.