Tag Archives: baroque era

Composer of the Month for September: George Frideric Handel

Logo Composer of the MonthWelcome to the very first Composer of the Month. This is a new regular series in which I will explore the vocal music of different composers. As part of Composer of the Month, a free pdf will be available of this month’s composer for you to use with your students. I will also post at least two posts, one with a biography of the composer, and one with a selection of typical vocal works and some notes on what makes their music famous.

This month, we’re beginning with one of my favourite composers of all time:

Handel, GF

Handel Image


Born: 1685
Nationality: German (Prussian)
Lived in: Brandenburg-Prussia, Italy, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
Fame Rating: Fortissimo!


George Frideric Handel was born in Halle, Duchy of Magdeburg. Halle is in the east of modern Germany, but when Handel was born, it was in a country called Brandenburg-Prussia which became the Kingdom of Prussia in 1701 (Handel was 16).

Handel loved music from an early age, but his father wanted him to become a lawyer. Young George was forbidden from studying music, so the story goes, and he practiced in secret. Then, during a visit to relatives, he surprised everyone with his ability to play. This convinced his father he should continue to have musical training, although not enough to dissuade him that the career for Handel was the law.

Just as his father wished, Handel headed off to law study at the University of Halle, but this commitment didn’t last long. Within a year, Handel accepted a job as violinist and harpsichordist for the Opera in Hamburg (at the time, an independently governed imperial city in the Holy Roman Empire, and now in northern Germany).

After a few years of working as a musician and composer, Handel left the Holy Roman Empire for Italy at the invitation of the powerful Medici family. Italy was the place to be in the early 18th Century for composers as it was at the cutting edge of musical fashion. Opera was booming business and Handel was soon adding his own sound to the mix. Handel also worked for the Papacy, writing sacred music for the Roman Catholic church in the form of cantatas (songs) and oratorios (choral works).

In 1710, Handel returned to Germany, where he became court musician and composer for Georg, Elector of Hanover. As part of this role, he travelled to London, where only a few years later his patron would also move. In 1714, Georg of Hanover became King George I of Great Britain and Ireland.

In London, Handel thrived, holding posts with the Royal Academy of Music, and the Royal Opera in Covent Garden. He also continued to work for the Hanover family, composing one of his most famous works, Zadok the Priest, for the coronation of George II. It was this royal music which includes Music for the Royal Fireworks and the Water Music which would fix Handel in the history of music as one of the most famous composers of all time.

Handel continued to write operas in London, and also travelled Europe recruiting for choirs and  orchestras. Later, he returned to religious music, as this seemed to be more popular among the London audiences. His most famous work, the Messiah, was first performed in 1742 and has been performed constantly ever since.

When he died in 1759, Handel was one of the rare breed of artist who was recognised as great during his lifetime as well as after. He was buried with full state honours in Westminster Abbey. Three thousand mourners attended the funeral.

Today, his works live on amongst the most popular works of all time. This year (2013), the Messiah placed at 22 in the Classic FM Hall of Fame (an annual public vote of favourite classical music).

Famous Historical Events During Handel’s Lifetime:

  • 1688 – The Glorious Revolution makes England a constitutional monarchy
  • 1703 – Peter the Great founds St Petersburg and moves the Russian capital there
  • 1707 – Act of Union of the Parliaments of England and Scotland
  • 1714 – George, Elector of Hanover, becomes King George I of Great Britain
  • 1715 – “First Jacobite Rebellion” happens in Scotland (it’s not really the first one though…)
  • 1720s – Bad financial management causes the “South Sea Bubble” – one of the first Capitalist market crashes
  • 1729-30 – The Wesley brothers found Methodism in England

Find out more about Handel elsewhere online:
Classics for Kids – BBC Radio 3 – Classic FMWikipedia


A History of Music for Singers – The Baroque Era

A History of Music for SingersLast week, we began journeying through the history of music with the Renaissance period. The Renaissance slowly transitioned into the Baroque (Bar-RO-ck) period around the start of the 16th Century. The name Baroque developed from a Latinate word meaning “rough or imperfect pearl” and was actually initially used to make fun of the elaborate style of music and art which became popular. Now, it is just used in a more technical sense to talk about the creative arts in the century from about 1650 to about 1750.

Fashion in 1600sIn Britain, the Barque era saw the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (which included the English Civil War) and the union of the English and Scottish Parliaments to create the United Kingdom. This was a time when many Empires were being built, and the aristocracy were enjoying a golden age (that would soon come crashing down around their ears…).

One of the key aspects of music at this time is that it was mainly funded either by the church (as it had been in the Renaissance) or by the aristocracy. Musicians were employed by courts, or by theatres owned by rich noblemen, and they worked on commission. One of the most enduringly famous works of George Frederick Handel (the epitome of Baroque composition) is Zadok the Priest, which was composed for the coronation of George I of Great Britain in 1727:

The patronage of the upper classes encouraged the growth of formal ceremonial music, but it also saw new forms develop. The leisured classes wanted entertainment, and so the genres of opera (for secular stories) and oratorio (for religious and mythological texts) developed. In the early days, operas looked very similar to modern musicals with dance sections, scripted elements and songs. Here’s a song from Purcell’s early opera King Arthur.

Chamber Music

Chamber music also developed as a way for the rich to enjoy music in their own homes – in their “chambers”. Chamber music has a very small orchestra because the whole group had to fit in someone’s living room. Many of the chamber works at the time took inspiration from dance music like minuets, gavottes and sarabandes.

Church music also continued to be popular and important. One of the most influential writers of church music was J S Bach. Bach wrote hundreds of choral hymns, which are now known as “chorales”, and some of them are still sung in chuches today, and others have become famous in their own right, like Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.

Ordinary people too, were exposed to this church music. The Reformation had changed Sundays forever, and people were now singing hymns and psalms like never before. One of the principles of the Reformation was that every man should learn scripture and choose faith for himself. Singing hymns was one way to help the average Joe in the pew memorise bible verses and scriptural truths.

Outside church, broadside ballads still ruled popular music, and they would come to play an important role in motivating the general population to take sides in everything from the Reformation to the Civil War. The governments of the day also paid writers to produce warning songs about excecuted criminals. It was a little bit like setting the news stories found in The Sun to the music of Adele!

There were a number of popular vocal forms during the Baroque period. Some, like masques, masses and oratorios were new. Others, like Monody, were developments from Renaissance inventions like the Air:

These forms also developed for chamber orchestras:

When you’re listening to decide if something is Baroque music, it’s likely to have some of these features:

  • Elaborate – usually embellished with ornaments like trills and turns
  • Rhythmic – it’s easy to hear the beat
  • Complex and detailed – the different parts all keep moving around
  • Dramatic – thick harmonies, and changes in dynamics and tempo
  • Follows all the ‘rules’ of harmony – no chromatic chords, or strange arrangements

Composers to Remember:

–> Next week: The Classical Era

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