Handel, George Frederick (1685–1759), composer, was born 23 February 1685 in Halle, the son of Georg Händel (1622–97), a barber-surgeon to the court of the duke of Saxe-Weissenfels. From c.1692–3 the young Georg Friederich received a thorough musical education (keyboard playing, repertory, and composition) from Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow (1663–1712), organist of Halle's Liebfrauenkirche and a composer. In February 1702 he enrolled himself as a student at the University of Halle (where he may have studied law) and a month later was appointed organist at the city's Calvinist Domkirche. Having decided to devote himself fully to music, however, Handel left Halle the following year and was to spend the rest of his life in the major opera centres of Europe, beginning with Hamburg.
At the Hamburg opera, directed at this time by Reinhard Keiser (1674–1739), Handel worked as a violinist and continuo player, and it was here that his first opera, ‘Almira’, was produced in 1705. Eager to broaden his experience, he left in the second half of 1706 and travelled to Italy, where he spent four productive years. Dividing his time between Florence, Rome, Venice, and Naples, he composed cantatas, Latin church music, two operas, and two oratorios; the period was a decisive one in his maturation as a composer. He left Italy in February 1710 and was appointed Kapellmeister to the electoral court in Hanover four months later. Handel spent little time in his new post, however, and was in London by the autumn, attracted by the prospect of producing Italian operas there. His first London opera, ‘Rinaldo’, the first Italian opera composed specifically for the London stage, was premiered on 25 February 1711 and was a resounding success. Between 1711 and 1741 Handel – who became a naturalised British subject in 1727 – was to produce thirty-five operas. His focus on the genre was aided from 1720 by the establishment of a ‘Royal Academy of Music’, an organisation founded by members of the nobility under the patronage of George I to put Italian opera in London on a secure footing. When the academy failed in 1728, Handel, in partnership with J. J. Heidegger (1666–1749), established a second opera ‘academy’ on a subscription basis, which lasted until 1734. After 1741, when his last opera, ‘Deidamia’, was produced, Handel turned his attention exclusively to English theatre oratorio, a genre of his own creation and his enduring legacy to music. Written largely after 1730 and noted for their extensive and dramatic use of the chorus, his oratorios are usually in three acts and are based on Old Testament plots. Some, however, like ‘Israel in Egypt’ (1738) and ‘Messiah’ (1741), are non-dramatic, having no story line. While his greatness unquestionably rests on his achievements as a vocal composer, Handel also produced a substantial body of instrumental music, including orchestral works and solo concertos with orchestra, chamber works, and keyboard works.
Dublin audiences were no strangers to Handel's music when the composer visited Ireland in late 1741. The dramatic work ‘Acis and Galatea’, for example, had received the first of many Dublin performances on 1 May 1734 in Crow Street music hall. Handel's lengthy stay in Dublin – which Burrows has even referred to as the composer's ‘Dublin period’ – may have resulted from an invitation by the lord lieutenant of Ireland, William Cavendish (qv), third duke of Devonshire. The composer was at a crossroads in his career, and it was in Dublin that he was to give his final performances of Italian opera, albeit in concert-style presentations. Handel arrived in Dublin from London via Chester on 18 November 1741 and took lodgings in Abbey Street. He had just completed what was to become his most famous work, ‘Messiah’, composed between 22 August and 14 September. Handel's librettist, Charles Jennens (1700–73), had also collaborated with the composer in the writing of ‘Saul’ (1738), ‘L'Allegro’, ‘il Penseroso ed il Moderato’ (1740), and Belshazzar (1744). The first performance of ‘Messiah’ – ‘Mr Handel's new Grand Sacred Oratorio’ (Faulkner's Dublin Journal, 10 Apr. 1742) – took place in the New Musick Hall (‘Mr Neale's Great Room’) in Fishamble Street at noon on 13 April 1742 and was a charity benefit, the £400 proceeds being donated for ‘the relief of the prisoners in several gaols, and for the support of Mercer's Hospital in Stephen's Street, and of the charitable infirmary on the Inns Quay’. It was the culmination of two series of subscription concerts undertaken by the composer, beginning on 23 December 1741. The first subscription series, which ended on 10 February 1742, included performances of ‘L'Allegro’, ‘Acis and Galatea’, ‘A Song for St Cecilia's Day’, ‘Esther’, and some organ concertos (Handel, indeed, brought his own pipe organ with him to Dublin). The second series, which commenced on 17 February and which also included ‘concertos on the organ’, featured ‘Alexander's Feast’, ‘L'Allegro’, a concert version (‘serenata’) of ‘Imeneo’, and ‘Esther’. Unlike its subsequent reception in London over the next eight years, the Dublin premiere of ‘Messiah’ – attended by about 700 people – was enthusiastically received, and among the performers were members of the choirs of the two Dublin cathedrals, St Patrick's and Christ Church: ‘On Tuesday last, Mr. Handel's Sacred Grand Oratorio, The Messiah, was performed at the New Musick-Hall in Fishamble-street, the best Judges allowed it to be the most finished piece of Musick. Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crowded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear’ (Faulkner's Dublin Journal, 13–17 Apr. 1742).
In response to requests from the ‘Nobility and Gentry’, Handel gave two final performances in Dublin following the premiere of ‘Messiah’. On 25 May he conducted ‘Saul’ at Fishamble Street, while the second performance of ‘Messiah’ on 3 June was the composer's final Dublin performance before his departure for England on 13 August. While he did not revisit Ireland, Handel, in a letter to Jennens on his return to London, expressed the desire ‘to continue [his] Oratorio's in Ireland’ in 1743. He died in London 14 April 1759 and was buried in the South Cross of Westminster Abbey on 20 April.