Along with Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel is no doubt one of the most enduring favorites of the Baroque composers. Although he wrote for many instruments, Handel is best-known for his vocal music, particularly his Italian operas and English oratorios.
Handel was born in 1685 in Halle, Saxony, of middle-class parents. He exhibited an early aptitude for music, which his father—a barber-surgeon, who had hoped that his son would grow up to be a lawyer—reportedly attempted to discourage. According to an early biographer, when Handel was a child, his father banned musical instruments from the house, so that the boy was forced to practice secretly on a clavichord hidden in the attic. When Handel was nine, however, his father was persuaded to give him a musical education by the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels, who had been impressed by the child’s organ playing. Handel went on to study both law and music at Halle University, but soon determined that his skill and passion lay with the latter subject.
Handel advanced swiftly in his chosen career. In 1702, he was appointed to the post of organist of the Domkirche in Halle. In 1703, he moved to Hamburg, where he became second violinist in the grand Hamburg opera house, the largest operatic venue in northern Europe at that time. Soon, he began composing his own operas to be performed at the theater.
Then, in the autumn of 1706, Handel set off for Italy, probably arriving first in Florence and then traveling from one city to another for three years, continuing to compose operas and other pieces for a variety of patrons. While it is unclear what prompted his trip, there was hardly a better place for a young composer to visit in the early eighteenth century. While in Italy, he met talented contemporary masters, including Arcangelo Correlli, and Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti, from whom he quickly absorbed the prevailing Italian musical forms and styles.
In 1710, Handel left Italy and traveled north to Hanover, where he was appointed Kapellmeister to the Elector Georg of Hanover. It was in this capacity that he first visited London, with the goal of creating new Italian operas for an English audience. At some point after this first visit, Handel decided to settle in England, although he continued periodically throughout his life to travel on the continent. In 1725, he took a lease on a house in London, in which he lived for the rest of his life. In 1727, he became a naturalized English citizen.
Handel went on to become a vital part of London’s burgeoning 18th century music scene. He had a natural aptitude for theater and was involved in the management of a number of opera companies. Between 1719 and 1752, he composed and produced numerous operas and oratorios in London for a number of different patrons and theaters. Indeed, he is still recognized today as the progenitor of the English oratorio form— his Messiah remains his best-known work. By the 1750’s, however, his eyesight had begun to deteriorate. Composition became more difficult as his vision faded, but he managed to continue to supervise the production of his oratorios and to perform public concerts on the organ. He died in 1759 and was buried in Westminster Abbey, with full state honors. More than 3,000 people attended his funeral.
We know little of Handel’s personal life, as he left few letters or other writings. He appears to have been a very private man, dedicated to his art above all else, though his friendships were strong and enduring. There were some rumors of a brief affair or two with female opera singers while he was in Italy, but he never married. His contemporaries portrayed him as hard-working, practical, and independent. Charles Burney, who played violin in Handel’s concerts in the 1740s, describes an unpretentious man with a deep capacity for humor:
“He was impetuous, rough and peremptory in his manners and conversation, but totally devoid of ill-nature or malevolence . . . Handel’s general look was somewhat heavy and sour; but when he did smile, it was his sire the sun, bursting out of a black cloud. There was a sudden flash of intelligence, wit and good humour, beaming in his countenance, which I hardly ever saw in any other.”(1)
“Handel understands effect better than any of us—when he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.”
—Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
“Go to [Handel] to learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means.”
—Ludwig Van Beethoven
Dixit Dominus is a setting of the Latin text of Psalm 110 and is part of the Catholic Sunday Vespers service. Handel composed his setting in 1707 during his tour of Italy. Early that year, he had arrived in Rome, where he was an immediate sensation. “[T]he diarist Francesco Valesio noted that ‘there has arrived in this city a Saxon, a most excellent player on the harpsichord and composer, who today gave a flourish of his skill by playing the organ in the church of S. Giovanni to the amazement of everyone present.’”(2) Although during his time in Italy, Handel premiered operas in both Florence and Venice to great acclaim, the performance of opera had been banned in the Papal States. So, in Rome, Handel performed primarily sacred music and secular cantatas. Dixit Dominus, which he composed at the age of 22, most likely at the behest of one of the City’s powerful cardinals, was such a piece. There is, unfortunately, no record of its premiere, so scholars can only speculate as to the occasion for the work. The brilliant and virtuosic setting, however, has remained a favorite, and in it, we can hear many examples of the great dramatic “effects” which both Mozart and Beethoven so admired.(3)
Dixit Dominus is divided into nine movements, scored for a five-part chorus and five soloists. Handel conveys the power of the assured, martial text through contrasts between movements as well as within each movement. The piece also contains numerous examples of word painting, where the sound of the music imitates the imagery of the text.
The first movement begins energetically with vigorous cascading arpeggios in the strings, soon punctuated by the chorus’ assertive and triumphant repetitions of “dixit” (“[The Lord] said”). The subsequent lines of the psalm are trumpeted out in great banners of sound moving from voice to voice, and elaborated upon in rhythmic reiterations that rise higher and higher until they end in the forceful restatement of the opening word of the psalm: “Dixit.” No. II, Virgam virtuis, provides immediate contrast in a serene alto solo. In No. III, Tecum principium, the simple melody in triple rhythm established by the opening strings, and then echoed and extended by the soprano soloist, conveys a reverent and secure faith in the Lord’s protection.
No. IV, Juravit Dominus, employs brilliant dramatic contrasts between the majestic opening phrase and the subsequent vigorous assertions “non, non!” In the following movement, No. V, Tu es sacerdos, the descending phrase “according to the order of Melchisedech” tumbles from one voice to another in a seamless cascade echoing the eternal nature of the holy priesthood. In No. VI, Dominus a dextris tuis, the sharp accents on “confregit” (“shall shatter”) embody the violence of the word. And the staccato, percussive “conquasabits” of No. VII, Judicabit in nationibus, suggest the inexorable march of destruction that the Lord will unleash on the leaders of the nations being judged. Handel gives us a brief respite from these martial effects in the beautiful and mysterious No. VIII, De torrente in via bibet, its fluid female solo voices shimmering above the males’ unison chanting. The dramatic energy returns in the jubilant No. IX, Gloria Patri et Filio, with its intricate fugues, unflagging energy and leaping soprano octaves propelling the voices to their final triumphant “Amen.”
– by Nina Anne Greeley
1 Quoted in Keates, Jonathan, Handel: The Man & His Music. London: Bodley Head Publishers, 2008, p. 306.
2 Ibid, p. 22.
3 Indeed, Handel reused some of the melodies and effects from Dixit Dominus in his later works, most notably, Israel in Egypt (1739). Audience members familiar with that oratorio may recognize the seeds of “He Led Them Through the Deep” in Dixit Dominus’s “Tu Es Sacerdos”.