Baroque Music XI: George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Handel is the only person I would wish to see before I die, and the only person I would wish to be, were I not Bach.” J.S. Bach

Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived… I would uncover my head and kneel down on his tomb.” Ludwig van Beethoven

The two titans of Baroque music, George Frideric Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach, were born several weeks apart in 1685.  These two composers, collectively, brought music forward at an exponential rate.  While Bach was busy creating some of the most complex music ever composed, Handel was upping the dramatic urgency, particularly through his oratorios and operas.  As with the Baroque, the watchword was always more: more instruments, more singers, more complexity—more, more, more!  And no one met that challenge better than Handel.  I consider Bach to be the superior composer, but Handel gets more playtime in my home.  Everyone knows his Alleluiah chorus from the Messiah.  But he’s so much more than that one piece.

Born in Germany, Handel found his fame in London under what was then the new Hanover dynasty. No wonder Germans love London so much—the Queen is German, their greatest composer was German, and they love sausages and beer. But before he arrived in England, Handel, like many composers, spent time in Italy. While in Rome, he studied with both Corelli (and thus mastered orchestration) and Alessandro Scarlatti, from whom he learned about opera and composing for solo voice.

Hands down, my favorite work of Handel’s is an early one, composed in Rome around 1707—his great early oratorio, Dixit Dominus. Dixit Dominus is divided into eight movements, scored for a five-part chorus and five soloists. Composed at 22, this 30 minute piece is a blockbuster. In the raucous first movement, the strings’ arpeggios punctuated by the chorus repeating “dixit”, i.e., the Lord said—the synthesis of Corelli and Scarlatti, with a dash of German oomph (yes, that is a technical term). In the penultimate movement, “De Torrente in via bibet,” Handel unleashes a series of dissonant suspensions that are so unbelievably beautiful as to practically stop your heart. And while I have not checked the score, I do believe we hear the Circle of Fifths poke out from time to time.

This piece is very special for me. It was the first music that my daughter ever heard–starting on the first day of her life. We played this disc so much the (largely Dominican) nurses thought we were VERY Catholic and paid extra attention to her as a result. It was perhaps inevitable she ended up in Catholic school.

Religion aside, my interest in this music is far more prosaic. This is baroque rock n’ roll—proto-Led Zeppelin. You cannot play this one too loud—the horns, the chorus all benefit from more volume. Here is the full recording on YouTube and some selections on Spotify–the Spotify links are to my favorite recording of the work, the same one we played for my daughter on her first day of life.

George Frideric Handel, Dixit Dominus:

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