Handel & Company: Classical Music is for Everybody

All right, let’s make sure we got everything we need to talk about our composers today.

Tight pants – check

Big hair – check

Lots of makeup – check

Face-melting solos – check

Yup, we’re ready to talk about Handel and his contemporaries.  Oh wait, were you thinking about someone else?

You might be a bit confused, because this checklist sounds like something you’d use to describe glam metal – sometime called hair metal – bands that dominated popular music during the 1980s (as opposed to the 1680s or whatever).  In reality these two different genres of music, centuries apart, actually have a fair amount in common.  For a while, music becomes all about the viturosi, the solos, the stars.

Compare this improvisational guitar solo from Poison’s CC Deville to a violin solo from Vivaldi’s concerto Spring (from The Seasons).

Separated at birth?  This is only a small sampling of some of the similarities between these two genres, but I’ll leave the greater details to someone else (with more time).  The point is, if you like glam metal (and the like), you might also enjoy the music of Handel and his posse.

Moving on, we’re going to look over the music of Handel mostly but have one or two other people’s music as well just to see in context what is happening here.  Handel was actually born in the same year as the other great German Baroque composer of the time: Johann Sebastian Bach (sadly, they never met).  Handel was born into a family that was rather indifferent to music.  When his father noticed he had an interest and talent in music he did what all great dads do and decided to have a household ban on instruments.  That didn’t stop little George from sneaking a clavichord up to the attic.  Later, Handel and his brother would convince their father to let them have proper musical training.  There is hope for people out there who want to pursue music in less-than-supportive families.

His father – obviously still not very supportive – decided to send Handel off to Italy to study law (dad-of-the-year candidate right here).  Lucky for Handel, Italy was brimming with music and also happened to be the cradle of the most popular music of the day: opera.  After a while, Handel couldn’t resist the music around him; He was like a little kid in a candy store.  He took some music jobs and started to write music, including opera.  Unlucky for Handel, the Catholic church soon banned opera productions throughout much of Italy.

At this point we see Handel’s tenacity and ability to adapt and thrive in hard situations.  Instead of being defeated and letting their most prized form of music die, they decided to start writing oratorios – un-staged dramatic works, basically everything that an opera is musically without staging, costumes, sets and acting (but that last one is hard to find in most operas anyway).  A great example of an oratorio during this time period is Il Trionfo Della Castità (The Triumph of Chastity) by Italian composer Antonio Caldara.

Handel really caught on to this and wrote some brilliant pieces.  He also wrote dramatic settings of the Bible that are very operatic in their nature.  From this genre comes one of his most difficult works: Dixit Dominus (a setting of Psalm 110).

Handel soon left Italy to return to Germany and take up a music job with the Elector of Hanover, George.  For some reason, Handel went on a trip to London, like it so much that he requested to go again and never returned to Hanover.  The Elector of Hanover asked him to come back, but Handel just ignored him.  Then Queen Anne of Great Britain died without children and for some odd reason the next person in line for the throne was Anne’s second cousin, George, Elector of Hanover (pfff . . . weird).  So the elector becomes king and moves to London.  Here’s where things get a bit “fictional.”  Handel’s now afraid for his life having upset his old boss who is now the King of his new favorite country.  In order for him to win the favor of his old boss (and maybe even get his old job back) Handel writes music to accompany the king’s boat ride on the Thames river (pronounced “tehmz”).  In a well-choreographed moment, the king hears the music, likes it and then Handel shows up saying he wrote the music just for him and begs for his forgiveness, which the king grants.

My guess is that King George was just happy to see a familiar face from his mother country and excited that someone else in London actually spoke German.  Neither Handel nor the king ever learned English very well.  The music was probably written after the reconciliation to accompany the King’s boat rides on the Thames.  True or not, it’s a good story with great music to match.

Handel became England greatest music import, but it wasn’t always the warmest reception.  Handel tried introducing Italian opera to them, which the public liked for a while but then grew quite cold to it.  Handel had a problem with money, he’d get lots of it and then spend it all and be left with nothing (like a true rock star).  Looking for a way to get more income, Handel tried introducing oratorios to them, which for some reason the public liked much more.  I don’t know why but while the Italians are settling for oratorios because their operas have been banned, the English actually preferred them.  Handel had much more success writing oratorios and had some great pieces along the way – the most famous being Messiah.  Just another example of Handel making the best out of a situation.

One of his secular oratorios has this fantastic number called “Myself I Shall Adore.”  In this aria it’s all about the virtuosity of the singer, there is some back and forth between the singers and the orchestra, but it’s mostly about her and you’ll see why.  Here’s a performance by Carolyn Sampson with Harry Christophers (of The Sixteen) conducting.

By 1727 Handel had become a naturalized British subject.  Somehow, this illegal immigrant gained citizenship through amnesty (A bit of a sensitive topic today).  By this time King George I (former Elector of Hanover) had died and his son George II was to be crowned as the new king.  As part of the celebration, Handel was commissioned to write a set of anthems to accompany the coronation ceremony.  Handel selected the text himself which included accounts from the Bible of the coronation of King Solomon.  The goal of these pieces was to show parallels between Solomon’s coronation and that of the current monarch, convey the majesty of the crown and of Great Britain, as well as to blow the minds of everyone listening.

The most famous anthem is “Zadok the Priest,” which has been performed at every coronation in Great Britain since George II in 1727.  It begins with a slow build up of anticipation, strings softly ascending in the same figure on different harmonies for a while.  All this builds and builds to an explosion of sound with the choir singing “Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king.  And all the people rejoic’d and said: ‘God save the King!  Long live the King!  May the King live forever, Hallelujah, Amen.’”  Listen for the tell-tale British pomp and circumstance but with the finest combination of music from Germany and Italy.  It really is designed to knock your socks off.  A lot like this excerpt from The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” (I know it’s not 80s glam metal, but it still illustrates the point well.)

Here’s a fantastic performance by the Sixteen (although you’ll notice there’s a lot more than sixteen in this performance . . . long story) conducted by Harry Christophers.

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