George Frederic Handel
Birth - Death
1685 - 1769
George Frederic Handel was a composer of operas, orchestral pieces, choral music, and organ . He is particularly noted for his compositions for the English Royal Family of King George II and was the foremost composer of the Baroque era. His coronation theme has been played at each British coronation since 1727.
Although his father intended him to study law, Handel’s love for music at an early age encouraged him to secretly study and learn how to play various musical instruments. His father was shocked and impressed when he first heard him play. Handel's destiny in music was determined, though he did study law briefly.
Handel started composing operas and organ concertos at an early age. In 1710, he moved to London to take the position of music maker for Prince George, the future King of England. He began composing numerous operas and arias for wealthy patrons and the Royal Family. Notable amongst these was Water Music and the opera Amadigi di Gaula. He joined the Royal Academy of Music in 1719 and was tasked with writing operas and recruiting a cast of singers when the Queen's Theatre in London was converted to an opera house.
In 1727, Handel was tasked with a commission to produce anthems for the coronation of King George II. Of these compositions, Zadok the Priest has been performed at every subsequent Royal Coronation. As a result of this success, his reputation with the gentry and the general public was now entrenched and opera became the favorite musical genre of his generation.
Handel moved on to write a number of new operas for his third company, Covent Garden Theatre. He continued in this position until 1741 at which time he retired to focus on the compositions of oratorios, or chorus compositions. It was during this time that he wrote his now famous and standard piece, The Messiah (1742).
The other significant piece he composed in these final years of his life was Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749). This was a production witnessed by over 12,000 spectators. Its rapturous reception confirmed his status as a British cultural icon of his generation, and he became a hero of a musical cult that continues today.
Handel's sexual attraction to men was well known during his lifetime by his compatriots, but because of his popularity it was a well hidden secret. He never married but spent a great deal of time in the company of men in private. His orbit included the homosexual venues of the elites, including the London theatre and opera scene where he was most successful. His close circle of friends were homosexuals and his solo cantatas were commissioned and written for them.
It is argued that many of the classical pieces of art and music of Handel's generation reflect a deliberate effort on the part of a group of artists to idealize the notion of same-sex desire. The art is intended to be a metaphorical message of the artistic beauty surrounding the classical image of homosexuality. It allowed the publicly forbidden act of same-sex love to be privately expressed to an unknowing group of listeners. There are abundant instances of this duplicity in many of Handel's operas and choral works.
This subterfuge is a common characteristic of any marginalized group in society. When faced with harsh public intolerance towards one's natural desire, the inclination is to express it by subtle means such as paintings, literature, or music.
Does it matter whether Handel was gay or not? Perhaps not in the context of the quality and relevance of his music. However the LGBTQ community and its members should know the history of people who faced similar life circumstances to their own. It is good to know the forces that shaped Handel's creative output.
The most poignant example of Handel's message of homosexuality is in his cantatas. These were composed in his later years when he was more comfortable with his success and less concerned with public backlash. They were all commissioned by men. Although very little is documented and known about Handel's private sexual life, it is reasonable to acknowledge that a man of his generation would conceal his homosexuality in his vast artistic output. Despite living his entire career as a public celebrity, it is sad that such coded messages and circumstantial evidence can be the only form of conveying one's true inner emotions of attraction and love, but such were the restrictions placed by society.