By Linda de Vries
Today, March 6, 2014, you could attend the London Bach Festival and witness a performance of Georg Frideric Handel’s Arianna in Creta, part of this year’s London Bach Festival. You could if you were in London, that is.
This possibility provides our Bach Bagatelle for today: Bach and Handel.
This builds on an earlier post—“Bach and the Band”—for Handel is one of the many brilliant artists and thinkers born in Thuringia. Further, the lives of these two towering musical figures paralleled one another in interesting ways.
Handel was born in Halle on February 23, 1685, just 33 days before Sebastian Bach was born a mere 131 miles away. Handel’s father, intending a law career for his son, forbade him to have anything to do with music. Georg, however, snuck away and secretly practice the harpsichord. Accidentally hearing his son play the organ on a trip to nearby Weissenfels, Handel senior relented and allowed Georg to study music.
In 1702 Handel began the study of law at Halle University, but soon tired of it and took a position playing violin and harpsichord a theatre in Hamburg. There he met Gian Gastone de’ Medici who invited him to Florence, where he began collaboration with librettist Antonio Salvi, producing Rodrigo, his first all-Italian opera, in Florence in 1707. Additional operas followed, the Italian audience applauding Handel as “our dear Saxon.”
He returned to Germany to become Capellmeister to Prince George, Elector of Hanover. Following his patron to London in 1711, his opera Rinaldo was the first Italian-language opera seen on the London stage. George became King George I of Great Britain and Ireland in 1714.
In 1719 Handel founded the Royal Academy of Music, an opera company funded by aristocratic patrons who wished to ensure themselves a stable source of Italian opera. By 1723 Handel had moved into a house at 25 Brook Street, Mayfair, where he lived for the rest of his life. It is now the Handel House Museum, and bears on its façade memorial plaques to both Handel and rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who lived in the same house two centuries later. Handel became a naturalized British citizen in 1727.
In 1728 John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (source for Bertolt Brecht’s 20th century The Threepenny Opera) enjoyed the longest run of any opera up to that time—62 performances. Public taste began to shift away from serious opera in Italian toward English-language comic opera.
Handel founded two more opera companies, one at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket (now Her Majesty’s) and one at Covent Garden, before accepting the changing tastes of his audience. He turned from operas to oratorios, the most famous of which is, of course, The Messiah.
In 1750 he arranged a performance of Messiah to benefit the Foundling Hospital, of which he was a governor (along with the artist Hogarth), and bequeathed a manuscript copy of Messiah to the orphanage at his death.
Today the former hospital is the Foundling Museum, which not only exhibits the history of the humane treatment of orphaned children, but holds the largest collection of Handel’s works. It is the subject of both a novel and a play entitled Coram Boy, performed in London and New York in 2006 and 2007. The museum is situated in the Bloomsbury area of London, quite near St. Pancras Church, where Sebastian Bach’s youngest musician son, Johann Christian, is buried.
Bach and Handel were born in the same year and died with a decade of one another. Each could be considered the “national composer,” Bach of Germany and Handel of England. They both underwent cataract surgery performed by the same doctor. Bach married twice and had 20 children. Handel never married, but devoted much of his attention to the orphans of London.
The two were born a what would be today a three-hour drive apart, were fully aware of each other’s work, made concerted attempts to connect in both 1719 and 1730, but never met.