Extracted from Michael Steen’s book The Lives and Times of the Great Composers, these concise guides, selected by The Independent’s editorial team, explore the lives of composers as diverse as Mozart and Puccini, reaching from Bach to Brahms, set against the social, historical and political forces which affected them, to give a rounded portrait of what it was like to be alive and working as a musician at that time.
Born within ten days of Bach and within a distance of 100 miles, Handel could not provide a greater contrast with the Lutheran master. Where Bach made pilgrimages to hear church organists, Handel sought out opera in Italy. Where Bach was ‘parsimonious and prudent’, Handel, the Italian-trained extrovert, became a risk-taking entrepreneur on an international scale, ending his life a wealthy man, with a house in Mayfair, honoured by his adopted nation.
Michael Steen follows Handel from his early years in Hamburg, through his apprenticeship in Florence and Rome to his five decades spent in the bustling London of the early 18th century. Arriving in 1710, Handel plunged into the musical world of the capital, composing and mounting a stream of Italian operas – on average almost one every nine months during the 1720s – to universal acclaim. He set up his own opera company with royal support and went talent-hunting on the continent to bring back the best singers. When the fashion for Italian opera was finally overtaken, Handel reinvented himself as a composer of oratorios and found renewed success with audiences. Even today, annual performances of Messiah are embedded in this country's musical life, as are the coronation anthem Zadok the Priest, the Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks. Three thousand people attended his funeral at Westminster Abbey when he died.
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