George Frideric Handel (23 February 1685 – 14 April 1759) was one of the greatest composers of the Baroque period. Opera dominated Handel’s career, yet for several centuries he was better known for his oratorios and instrumental works. He forged a personal idiom by taking Italian traditions and adding in elements of German counterpoint and dance forms from France. The result was a uniquely cosmopolitan style which, when Handel took it to London, would expand to embrace the musical legacy of the English Restoration composer Henry Purcell. Discover our selection of ten of the best Handel works including oratorio, orchestral suites and opera masterpieces by the great composer.
Best Handel Works: 10 Essential Pieces By The Great Composer
Handel composed Messiah, an English language oratorio, in 1741. After an initially modest public reception the oratorio gained in popularity and eventually became one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral pieces in Western music and is one of the best Handel works. The ‘Hallelujah’ chorus is one of the most famous pieces of Baroque choral music and the most widely known section of the work. When composing the celebrated ‘Hallelujah’ chorus Handel said it was “as if I saw God on his throne, and all his angels around him”.
Water Music Suites Nos. 1-3
Water Music, a collection of three orchestral suites, premiered on 17 July 1717 and was written in response to King George I’s request for a concert on the River Thames. The King and several aristocrats watched from the royal barge as about 50 musicians performed Handel’s music from another barge. The King was so pleased with Water Music that he ordered it to be repeated at least three times.
Music For The Royal Fireworks
Music For The Royal Fireworks, one of the best Handel works, was composed for performance at an outdoor festival in London on April 27 1749 to accompany the royal celebrations celebrating the end of the War of the Austrian Succession. During the first performance it rained, most of the fireworks refused to light, and the few that did light caused the staging to catch fire.
‘Arrival Of The Queen Of Sheba’ (from Solomon)
When the London public tired of Italian opera Handel re-invented himself with the English oratorio, including Solomon, which features the dazzling prelude ‘Arrival Of The Queen Of Sheba’. Solomon is rarely performed in its entirety but ‘Arrival Of The Queen Of Sheba’ has become famous outside the context of the complete work and was featured during the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony (as James Bond, Daniel Craig, went to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace).
Israel In Egypt
Israel In Egypt, an English language oratorio, is composed entirely of selected passages from the Old Testament, mainly from Exodus and the Psalms, and tells of the Israelites suffering in, and deliverance from, Egypt. This most electrifying of Handel’s oratorios, overflowing with dramatic choruses, was saved from oblivion by zealous Victorian choral societies.
Serse is one of Handel’s most popular operas and includes romantic intrigues and military manoeuvres. It features a popular opening aria, ‘Ombra Mai Fu’, later known as Handel’s ‘Largo’, sung by Xerxes while admiring the shade of a plane tree.
Giulio Cesare In Egitto
One of the most successful of Handel’s Italian operas, Giulio Cesare In Egitto, tells the story of Cesare’s encounters with Cleopatra and Ptolemy, her murderous brother. The opera is one of the most often performed Baroque operas and one of the best Handel works.
Alcina is one of Handel’s greatest operas and contains some of the most heartfelt arias ever written. This gripping opera is about a sorceress who has spellbound countless men into loving her until the urn that holds her magical gifts is finally smashed and her power destroyed.
The six Organ Concertos for chamber organ and orchestra were composed by Handel between 1735 and 1736. They were written as interludes inbetween performances of his oratorios and were the first works of their kind for this combination of instruments and served as a model for later composers.
12 Concerti Grossi, Op.6
One of the great glories of Baroque instrumental music the Opus 6 Concerti Grossi were a remarkable publishing success in Handel’s lifetime and are amongst the finest examples in the genre of baroque concerto grosso.
Trevor Pinnock’s 1988 recording of Handel’s Messiah with the English Concert and Choir is one of the finest versions available to offer authentic instruments and lively, embellished singing that is idiomatic to the Baroque period. The soloists are soprano Arleen Augér, contralto Anne Sofie von Otter, countertenor Michael Chance, tenor Howard Crook, and bass John Tomlinson. BBC Music Magazine described the recording as, “One of the freshest and most exciting Messiahs on CD reconciling ‘authentic’ practice with the work’s undoubted scope for grandeur. Superb soloists.”
Trevor Pinnock’s recording of Handel’s Messiah can be bought here.