European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

21 February 2014

Handel – Händel – Hendel: Anglo-German composer

Today we celebrate the 329th birthday of George Frideric Handel, or Georg Friederich Händel, a composer whose life epitomises the virtues of Anglo-German relations at the time of the Hanoverian succession. Born in Halle on 23 February 1685, Handel spent the last 36 years of his life in London, at 25 Brook Street. Though his social circles in London were mainly English-speaking, and most of his music sets English or Italian words, Handel remained German in his core. He would write private notes to himself in German on his manuscripts and, perhaps through frustration at his English acquaintances demonstrating their ignorance of the umlaut and mispronouncing him ‘Mr Handel’, he often signed his name ‘Hendel’.

Portrait of Handel in a decorative border
Handel, from the Walsh and Randall edition of Alexander’s Feast (BL RM.7. f.5)

The tercentenary of George I’s arrival from Hanover to the British throne affords a good opportunity to reconsider Handel’s connections with the royal family, in which his shared nationality certainly played an important part. In fact, Handel enjoyed the patronage of three British monarchs during his lifetime: Queen Anne, George I, and George II. Employed by George I when he was still the Elector of Hanover, Handel had the advantage of knowing the new king before his coronation in 1714. While he was employed as court composer to the Elector of Hanover, he spent much of his time in London, and wrote a birthday ode for Queen Anne.

When George I arrived in London, he did not speak English and maintained a German-speaking court, which gave Handel a distinct advantage over many of his fellow musicians in London. Although he was not appointed Master of the King’s Musick, Handel was favoured by George I and his family, while the appointed Master was left to compose music for smaller, less significant occasions. As a foreigner, Handel was not entitled to hold a court position, and he was appointed ‘Composer to the Chapel Royal’ with a pension rather than a salary, composing only for significant events. He also tutored the royal princesses, for which he was paid the princely sum of £200 per annum. Handel went on to compose the coronation anthems for George II, including most famously ‘Zadok the Priest’ which has been performed at every British coronation since, as well as the Music for the Royal Fireworks and the Water Music.

  Original manuscript of Handel's 'Zadok the Priest'
The opening bars of  Handel's manuscript of ‘Zadok the Priest’ (RM.20.h.5)

Handel’s connections with the Hanoverian succession form the subject of a new exhibition at the Foundling Museum, which runs until 18 May 2014. As well as several loans from the British Library’s collections, the display draws heavily on the Gerald Coke Handel Collection, held at the museum, as well as significant loans from Lambeth Palace, Westminster Abbey, the National Portrait Gallery and the Bate Collection.

After Handel’s death in 1759, his amanuensis and manager John Christopher Smith inherited all his music manuscripts, which were later presented to George III. They formed part of the Royal Music Library, which was presented to the British Museum Library by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1957. They now form one of the greatest treasures of the British Library’s music collections, and plans are now well underway for all of the Library’s holdings of Handel’s autograph manuscripts to be made freely available through our Digitised Manuscripts website.

Nicolas Bell, Curator, Music Collections, with Katharine Hogg, Librarian of the Gerald Coke Handel Collection at The Foundling Museum


The comments to this entry are closed.