1. The Messiah
In a concise survey of my favourite Handel pieces, it would be impossible not to begin with The Messiah. This is probably the cornerstone of Handel’s substantial output and one of the most popular oratorios ever written. The oratorio was composed in 1741 to a text that was assembled by Charles Jennings. It came at a time when Handel was not so much in favour with the London crowd as he had been in previous years. He needed a work that would enable him to showcase his magnificent talents and rise again to the pinnacle of the cultural heart of England.
The Messiah masterfully combines Handel’s tremendous flair for dramatic opera alongside his gift for the oratorio. Handel chose to employ only modest orchestral and vocal forces for his sixth venture into this musical form, only in later posthumous versions of The Messiah did the often gigantic collection of singers and orchestra become more usual. What perhaps, is the most remarkable aspect of this piece is that Handel wrote is in a month.
2. Zadok The Priest
This immensely popular work by Handel was composed for the Coronation of King George the Second in 1727. Handel set the text from the first chapter of Kings one from the Old Testament. Its enduring status in the collective musical conscience is in part due to the effortless way in which Handel captures the majesty and splendour of the occasion whilst carefully avoiding overstatement.
The music gradually builds a sense of anticipation over the six-minute duration, from the soft, flowing semi-quaver opening until the splendid entry of the choir. Queen Elizabeth the Second insists that this piece is always played at the Royal Maundy ceremony such is her admiration for the work of Handel.
3. Music for the Royal Fireworks (HWV 351)
This grand suite was composed in 1749 for a commission from His Majesty King George in celebration of the end of the War of the Austrian Succession. The choice of instruments is of particular note in this piece as Handel was required to compose for instruments more commonly used in military music; wind, no strings.
As such, Handel scored The Fireworks for 24 oboes, 12 bassoons, plus contra-bassoon, nine natural (no valves), trumpets and horns, together with six timpani. Handel gave very specific instructions for players to divide into groupings that give a particular sound to the work that is not accidental. Only later did Handel re-score the work to include strings.
The suite is in the French style as would have been popular then, and is divided into five movements as follows: Overture; Bourreé; La Paix; La Réjouissance and Menuets 1 & 2.
4. Lascia ch’io pianga
Dating from around 1705, this aria has become one of the most performed concert pieces ever composed by Handel. Reportedly, the melody for the aria was initially composed by Handel for his opera titled Almira, but later in his opera called Rinaldo, written in 1711. The aria appears in Act Two of the opera, sung by Almirena who sings to her captor, the Saracen King Argante.
The aria is a deeply expressive one, skilfully managed by the composer who in the space of around five minutes completely draws the listener into Almirena’s unlucky situation. The tempo marking is an expected Largo, giving the soloist full reign to explore the range of subtle nuance in the music. No specific scoring was specified by Handel for this aria, but in the tradition of many Baroque composers, he simply added a figured bass line underneath the melody.
5. Concerto Grosso in G minor (Op.6; No. 6)
The Concerto Grosso was an immensely popular musical form enjoyed and exploited by many Baroque composers. Handel was no exception and in this Concerto we can hear a composer secure with his musical voice and ability to express every facet of his experiences. This concerto seems to capture the many European influences Handel had on his work and his love and flair for opera.
The composition of the melodic lines is unmistakably rich with expression and drama without being predictable or obvious. In this sixth concerto (from the set of twelve), Handel took time to sketch and revise his ideas, ensuring a balance was achieved between the movements. Of particular note is the opening movement which is uncharacteristically sombre for Handel and indicates not only his operatic tendencies but more than a hint of the influence of Corelli.
The poetic Musette in the warm key of E flat major is amongst the most wonderful music Handel composed, full of dark and expressive string writing, yet somehow always with a glimpse of redemption and hope.
6. The Arrival of The Queen of Sheba
Such is the popularity of this piece that its origins are often overlooked. This lively, buoyant piece was composed by Handel as part of his oratorio titled Solomon which these days rarely receives a complete performance. The piece was first performed in London in 1749 and has remained a feature of many a formal occasion and frequently employed for weddings. It is scored for two solo oboes and strings that bring a certain solemnity to the tone of the music. The tempo is bright and optimistic.
7. Chaconne in G Major (HWV 435)
Often Handel is considered to be a composer who could compose a worthy melody but whose structural integrity was on occasions weak. I am deliberately ending this article with a look at a piece that easily demonstrates this is unfounded criticism. The Chaconne is a highly formalised musical structure in which the composer has the opportunity to devise increasingly imaginative melodic and harmonic ideas over a repeating bass line.
In this brief piece lasting only seven minutes and published around 1720, Handel achieves the unthinkable: twenty-one variations over the existing bassline. The vitality that emanates from the composition is undeniable as is the extraordinary fluency with which Handel creates these variations. They represent not only a display of remarkable harpsichord virtuosity but the outstanding skill of this fascinating Baroque composer.