George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Notes from the Assistant Dramaturg, Casey Krosser
Handel is considered one of the greatest English composers of the Baroque period. Handel’s father, like Alexander Ashbrook’s in Coram Boy, did not support his son’s passion for music. Instead Handel’s father pressured his son to become a lawyer. Nevertheless Handel continued to study and became familiar with various styles of Italian and German music, which would be the foundation for his later pieces.
By 1742, the year in which Coram Boy begins, Handel was already a celebrated composer, and in that year he premiered the Messiah in Dublin and then in Covent Garden a year later. Handel became involved with the Coram Foundling Hospital in 1749, when he conducted a benefit concert to fund raise for the hospital’s chapel. The first charity performance also premiered the anthem Handel created for the hospital called “Blessed Are They That Considereth the Poor.” The concert was a great financial success, and it was repeated the following year with a performance of the Messiah. The concert was also played from the organ that Handel gave to the hospital as a gift. The Messiah concert became an annual tradition, and Handel attended every concert until his death. When Handel died he left the Foundling Hospital a “Fair Copy of the Score and all Parts of his Oratorio call’d the Messiah.” There is a monument to Handel in Westminster Abbey, where he’s buried, that depicts him with the open score of Messiah. The monument reads, “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” Handel’s life spanned a full career of music and he has gained an immortality with many of his operas and oratorios. The “Hallelujah” chorus of the Messiah continues to be played annually throughout the world. We are introduced to Handel in Act II of Coram Boy, which takes place in 1750. Handel would have been 65 years of age, and nine years before his death.
Oratorio is defined as an “extended musical setting of a sacred, non-liturgical text,” (Finane, 26), or a longer musical composition that discusses biblical stories without using specific prayers. The term comes from the Roman oratory or prayer hall, which were used for spiritual gatherings in the 1550s. The word also comes from the Latin oratio meaning “prayer.” The roots of the oratorio stretch even further back to the Medieval mystery plays, where bible stories were set to music. There was also German “oratorium” during the 1700s specifically for Lutheran services. Handel’s English oratorio clearly has many ancestors, but it is essentially still his own invention.
Handel’s most famous oratorio, the Messiah was written in an astonishing 24 days. Handel wrote the piece in 1741 in his home in London. The texts for it were picked by Charles Jennens (1700-1773), who was a literary scholar and a member of the Church of England. The Messiah uses stories from the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah coming, to the Nativity, crucifixion of Jesus, Resurrection, and the Ascension. It is organized into three acts and has an operatic quality as it’s also organized into scenes. The piece was originally associated with Easter, even though it’s often thought of as a Christmas piece today.
Finane, Ben; Handel’s Messiah and His English Oratorios; Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 2009.
McClure, Ruth K.; Coram’s Children: The London Foundling Hospital in the Eighteenth Century; Yale University Press; New Haven and London, 1981.