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Another Coffee from the April 1993 Deep Cove Crier

‘Why did Beethoven See Handel as The World’s Greatest Composer?’

Beethoven once said: "Handel was the greatest composer that ever lived.  I would uncover my head, and kneel before his tomb."  King George III called Handel "the Shakespeare of Music."  George Bernard Shaw commented that "Handel is not a mere composer in England: he is an institution.  What is more, he is a sacred institution."

In North America and England, at the very least, Handel’s Messiah has become the most popular and performed and recorded and listened to choral work.  Many people stereotype Handel’s Messiah as Christmas music, but in earlier years, Messiah performances were more likely to occur at Easter.  For Handel, the Messiah was an Easter event that told not merely of birth but also of death and resurrection.

George Frideric Handel was born in Halle, Germany within a month of Johanne Sebastian Bach (1685).  Handel’s father was a barber-surgeon who hated music and wanted his son to become a successful lawyer.  His aunt Anna gave Handel a spinet harpsichord that they hid in Handel’s attic, wrapping each string with thin strips of cloth, so that Handel could play undetected.  When George was eight or nine, the Duke of Weissenfels heard him play the postlude to a church service and he summoned the boy’s father and told him he ought to encourage such talent.  His only teacher was Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, a most learned and imaginative musician and teacher, who instilled in his young pupil a lifelong intellectual curiosity.  At age 11, Handel entered a musical contest at the Berlin court of the Elector with the famous composer Buononcini, and won.

When Handel moved to England in 1712, it was a beehive of musical activity with Italian opera ruling the day.  Within the next 30 year period in England, Handel wrote about 40 operas and 26 oratorios.  Handel did not play to easy audiences.  If opera attenders felt bored in Handel’s day, they would often start loud conversations, and walk around freely.  It was also a custom for them to play cards, and eat snacks right during the opera.

As Smith/Carlson put it, Handel "...was an inviting target for critics and for satire.  He was a foreigner, and an individual no one could help noticing.  He had large hands, large feet, a large appetite, and he wore a huge white wig with curls rippling over his shoulders.  He spoke English rather loudly in a colourful blending of Italian, German, and French.  He was temperamental, he loved freedom, and he hated restrictions which placed limits on his art..."   Charles Burney, who later sang and played under him, told how Handel once raged at him when he made a mistake, "a circumstance very terrific to a young musician."  But when Handel found that his mistake was caused by a copying error, he apologized generously ("I pec your parton - I am a very odd tog", he said in Germanic English).

Handel also struggled with his weight, a problem about which critics mercilessly teased him.  His London years were up and down, and unbelievably down at times.  As Romain Rolland has tried to explain it: "He was surrounded by a crowd of bulldogs with terrible fangs, by unmusical men of letters who were likewise able to bite, by jealous colleagues, arrogant virtuosos, cannibalistic theatrical companies, fashionable cliques, feminine plots, and nationalistic leagues...Twice he was bankrupt, and once he was stricken by apoplexy amid the ruin of his company.  But he always found his feet again; he never gave in."

The situation was so bleak in 1741 that just before he wrote the Messiah, he had seriously considered going back to Germany.  What was it that kept him from giving up?? Click to find out why…


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North Vancouver, B.C.