Showing posts with label composers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label composers. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

George Frideric Handel-The Original Rockstar

George Frideric Handel was a law school drop out, last chair violinist¹, and the first international composing superstar. Born in what is now Halle Germany, Handel overcame parental disapproval, explosive duels, and a rigid patronage system to become one of the most famous composers of all time.

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Handel himself.
Handel was born in 1685 in Halle, then a part of the Holy Roman Empire. His father, Georg Handel, was a barber surgeon, and wanted his son to have an equally dignified profession. He forbade young George from pursuing his musical interests. His reasoning was the same as that of many parents of budding musicians--there was no financially stable career in music. Luckily Handel's mother, Dorthea, was of a different opinion. She encouraged her son to explore music, helping him hide a clavichord in the attic. Young Handel spent many hours practicing in secret.²

In 1702 Handel headed to the city of Trier to begin law school. However, he spent much more time studying organ with Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow³, and eventually dropped out of law school to pursue music full time. It seemed likely that Handel would become the next cathedral organist, but in 1703 he quit, and took a job in Hamburg as a violinist with the Goose Market Theatre.

While in Hamburg Handel taught private music lessons to supplement his income, took over some Harpsichordist duties with the orchestra, and composed furiously. 1705 saw the premier of his first opera, Almira, just three years after his arrival in Hamburg.

Also notable during his Hamburg years, Handel fought a duel with his friend Johann Mattheson. Mattheson, a composer, singer, and conductor was performing as Antony in his opera Cleopatra. After his death in act three of the opera Mattheson decided to take over as conductor of the orchestra. This was, as composer of the work, his right. Like most conductors of the day, Mattheson conducted from the harpsichord. However, when he reached the harpsichord to relieve George Handel, Handel refused to budge. This resolved into a bitter argument during the opera, which culminated in the men taking the fight outside, swords drawn. Mattheson nearly killed Handel that night, but Handel was, quite luckily, saved by a coat button. The two men resolved their quarrel soon after the duel, and remained friends until the end of their lives.

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Program for Handel's opera Rodrigo
In 1706 Handel left Hamburg for Italy. He traveled around the Italian peninsula, hobnobbing with notable instrumental and opera composers of the day--Corelli, Lully, and both Domenico and Alessandro Scarlatti. During his years in Italy, Handel developed a taste for opera, and begin writing his own operas in a more Italian style. He composed two major operas in Italy--Rodrigo and Agrippina. Both premiered in Italy, and made Handel a household name in the Italian opera scene. In under four years, Handel went from virtually unknown to a rising superstar.

Handel was well known enough that he was offered the position as Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover. However, Handel's stay in Hanover was brief. By 1711 he had set out for London--the city he would call home for most of the rest of his life.

1711 saw Handel's opera Rinaldo premiere, which was an instant hit. It was the first Italian Opera written specifically for London, it contained dazzling effects, and featured stirring arias sung by experts. Rinaldo ran for a whopping 47 performances--an enormously long run for the time.

Following Rinaldo Handel produced hit after hit after hit. His work was so popular that in 1712 he received an annual salary of 200 pounds from Queen Anne, about 33,000 pounds in 2018 currency. He desperately wanted to stay in London--a city that eagerly embraced his work--and in 1714 London became his permanent home after his boss, the Elector of Hanover, became King George I of England.

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Handel's most famous work, by far, is his Messiah. (Score
pictured here) He is also known for Water Music, and
Zadok the Priest, which has been performed at the
coronation of every British Monarch since its
composition.
From 1711 to 1737 Handel focused the majority of his attention on Italian Opera. He was the co-manager of an Italian Opera, and he wrote many about 40 operas during his London years. Handel's operas elevated him to the level of a superstar, and Handel enjoyed great popularity during this time.

However, in 1728 Italian opera started to go out of vogue. Attendance fell, and operas still had to deal with enormous production costs, making it difficult for companies to remain in the black. In addition to financial troubles, Handel and his colleagues had to deal with the perceived immorality of opera, and disapproval of the pious English public. Beneath all this, it is unsurprising that in 1737, Handel's opera company folded.

Handel then turned his attention to oratorios. Oratorios had the advantage of telling a grandiose story in song, but didn't have the high production cost of an opera. Additionally, since they weren't being presented in a play (the height of immorality), oratorios could safely tell religious stories. It was with these religious works that Handel really made his mark.

The first proto-oratorio was a revival of one of Handel's previous works, Esther. Esther was a wide departure from opera, featuring English lyrics, and no acting whatsoever. It was received well, and in 1733 Handel launched his first full oratorio Deborah and Athalia.

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Handel's house is preserved as a museum in London.
Though Handel did continue to write operas until 1741, he mainly produced oratorios from 1733 until the end of his life. He composed a total of 29 oratorios, with the most famous being his Messiah.

Handel died in 1759 at the age of 74. There was a staggering amount of public grief at his passing, and more than 3,000 people attended his funeral from all over Europe. A commemorative concert was put on 25 years after his death, and his works have remained constantly in performance ever since. Though he was born in Germany, England so thoroughly adopted him that he was laid to rest in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey.


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¹Although in Handel's time seats within the orchestra weren't referred to as chairs, they were called desks.
²For those wondering how Georg Handel didn't notice a clavichord being played in his own home, it is worth noting that the clavichord is a notoriously quiet instrument, part of why it was later replaced by the piano in the modern orchestra.
³For those wondering how Papa Handel responded, Papa Handel unfortunately died in 1696.

Sources
The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold C. Schonberg
Eric W. Nye, Pounds Sterling to Dollars: Historical Conversion of Currency, accessed Saturday, December 15, 2018, http://www.uwyo.edu/numimage/currency.htm.
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
George Frideric Handel. German-English Composer
Duel with Mattheson
A Biographical Introduction
George Frideric Handel-Composer
George Frideric Handel, and His Life Saving Coat Button

Friday, February 9, 2018

Damn, Girl-Hildegard of Bingen

Though armed with only a scant education, Hildegard of Bingen would go on to be the world's first known composer, a prestigious scientist, and a legendary prophetess. A true renaissance woman, it's difficult to know which of her achievements is most influential today. She revolutionized music, wrote medical textbooks used well into the renaissance, and proposed the idea that people, like plants, could inherit traits from their parents--some 700 years before Gregor Mendel did his experiments with pea plants.

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Hildegard von Bingen
Hildegard was the tenth child of Hiltebert and Mechthild, most likely members of the local nobility. The custom at the time was to give up the tenth child as a nun or monk to the Catholic Church, and as such Hildegard was sent to a Benedictine cloister at Disibodenberg, where she was put into the care of Jutta von Spanheim, a distant relative, and abbess of the cloister.

Hildegard suffered from illness as a child, and living in the austere Benedictine cloisters didn't help her. The damp, poor sleep, and lack of food and sunshine saw that Hildegard was bedridden for much of her childhood. In addition to her illness, Hildegard also had visions that she believed were sent from God. She was cautioned by Jutta to keep her visions quiet, and Hildegard did so for most of her life.

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Page from the Liber Scivias
When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard succeeded her as prioress. Under Hildegard's leadership, the atmosphere at the cloisters became more relaxed. The sisters were allowed to wear their hair uncovered, and encouraged to step out into the sunshine. Hildegard was still having visions, and five years after being installed as prioress she had a vision so intense that she was prompted to confide it to her mentor, Volmar the Monk. Volmar encouraged Hildegard to record her visions, and with Volmar's help Hildegard began working on her first book, the Liber Scivias.

As a visionary, Hildegard had a fine line to walk. She had the challenge of recording what she saw, while not verging into heretical territory. Proposing new religious ideas, while easier for a nun than a common person, was still a risky venture, and could cost Hildegard everything should she be denounced as a heretic. Luckily for Hildegard, her visions were accepted by the pope of the time, and she was encouraged to keep writing.
Hildegard began to build up a reputation as a mystic. Her study of local medicinal methods saw her praised as a great healer, and she composed music for her nuns to sing. In 1150 Hildegard founded the convent of Mount St. Rupert in an effort to get away from the hoards of people who made pilgrimages to see her. Taking Volmar as well as a few sisters and novitiates with her, Hildegard started writing in earnest.

Because her education had been scant and interrupted, Hildegard relied on Volmar to help her with the actual physical writing. Her exact process is unknown, but it is speculated that Hildegard either wrote everything out on a wax tablet, and then Volmar put it to parchment, or that Hildegard simply dictated to Volmar. After the initial putting of words to paper, Volmar had his monks make copies of Hildegard's words. Though it took ten years, the Liber Scivias was finished in 1158.

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Hildegard and Volmar
The Liber Scivias was disseminated throughout the Catholic countries, and Hildegard began working on her next book of visions, the Liber Vitae Meritorum. The visions contained in her books pertained to the workings of the universe, and how the earth, air, sun, moon, and stars were all connected. In addition to her books of visions, Hildegard also began working on medical textbook, which put forth the idea that boiling drinking water was a good move.

In addition to her writing, Hildegard also traveled Europe preaching pacifism, and promoting orthodox religious ideals. She founded another convent, and corresponded with hundreds of people from all across Europe, including kings and popes. She was so well loved that when she died at age 81 she was immediately dubbed 'St. Hildegard', though she was not formerly canonized until 2012.

Hildegard is best known today for her music, but her religious and medical writings have seen an increase in popularity in recent years too. Several biographies and novels have been written about her, and her song cycles have been recorded hundreds of times by classical vocalists. She is much beloved in the Catholic church, and the convent that she established still stands today.

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Sources
Saint Hildegard, German Mystic
Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard of Bingen: Life and Music of the Great Female Composer