The Baroque composer Georg Frederic Haendel (1685-1759) is regarded as one of the greatest composers of western classical music. He wrote more than forty operas in over thirty years, several of them are still regularly performed today. His Coronation Anthem Zadok the Priest, composed for the coronation of Georg II of Great Britain, has been performed at every subsequent British coronation. One of his most popular compositions is the oratorio Messiah, which features the Hallelujah-chorus, still one of the best known musical pieces of western music.
Haendel was born in 1685 in Halle (Germany), where he received his first lessons in composition and in the playing of several instruments (oboe, violin, harpsichord and organ). During this time, he has been strongly influenced by the German polyphonic choral tradition. In 1706 Haendel travelled to Italy, where he stayed for several years. In the homeland of opera he focused on writing stage works, for which he should become well-known. 1710 Haendel moved to London. He was extremely successful with his first opera in Great Britain, Rinaldo. This work contains some of Haendels favourite arias, Cara sposa, amante cara, and the famous Lascia ch’io pianga. The composer decided to settle permanently in London and became a naturalized British subject in 1727. Within fifteen years, Haendel had started three commercial opera companies to supply the English with Italian opera. In the late 1730ies he made a transition to English choral works. Having lived in England for nearly fifty years, he died in 1759 as a respected and rich man. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, where his grave can still be visited today.
Rinaldo (HWV 7) is the first opera Haendel composed for the English spectators and the first Italian opera to be written especially for a London theatre. Its world premiere was at Queen’s Theatre in London’s Haymarket on February 24 1711 and it turned out to become the most frequently performed opera during Haendel’s lifetime. The libretto by Aaron Hill and Giacomo Rossi is loosely based on Gerusalemme liberata (Torquato Tasso). The story takes place during the First Crusade in and around the city of Jerusalem. Its main topics are love, battle and redemption, but the opera was designed to amaze through its spectacular effects and its ‘magical’ content: Rinaldo, the main character, does not only have to fight in the Crusades, but also against a sorceress who wants to capture and seduce him.
The music contrasts spectacular moments with innovative use of brass instruments as well as quiet, intrinsic and emotional moments, which are evocatively illustrated by the music.
Most of Haendel’s operas have been composed for a non-Italian public. Although it was possible for the audience to read the translation of the sung text during the performance, Haendel tried to make the story and the relation between the characters as clear as possible. It was extremely important to him, that the emotional situation in the arias would be understandable by just listening to the music. Furthermore, in the Baroque era the musical drama was supposed to illustrate different emotional states (affects), which the characters endured. This resulted in a fixed aria structure (ABA’), used by the composers to contrast diverse emotions. The music was supposed to rouse the same emotions in the public, so that they could empathetically follow the endurances of the characters and get roused in their own minds.