What Are George Handel's Musical Characteristics?

by Stacy Zeiger Google
Handel composed operas that were performed in England.

Handel composed operas that were performed in England.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images News/Getty Images

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was a composer of classical music who lived in Germany and England during the Baroque period. His best-known compositions include "The Messiah," "Music for the Royal Fireworks" and the "Water Music." He was an exact contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti, both also born in 1685. In addition to Handel's well-known works, he produced numerous operas, oratorios and orchestral and chamber music compositions. His work influenced later composers, including Mozart and Beethoven.

Handel's Musical Influences

Handel was exposed to multiple musical experiences. As a child, he learned to play the harpsichord, clavichord and pipe organ. He studied musical composition under Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, a Lutheran organist. During college, he moved to Italy and wrote operas with Antonio Salvi, a librettist. Handel's experiences in Italy served to shape the remainder of his career as a composer when he moved to England, where most of his works were composed.


Handel composed a total of 42 operas during his lifetime. The operas mirrored Italian opera, with the libretto and songs written in Italian, but were performed for an English audience. Whereas most Italian operas were based on tragedies, Handel's operas tended to be lighter. Each opera was composed in three acts, with an aria as the main focus of each act. Handel's orchestras were also larger than traditional operas and used instruments such as bassoons and other wind instruments to add different musical timbres.


An oratorio is a large musical piece that includes vocalists and an orchestra. Handel's oratorios, like most oratorios, were Biblical in nature. Unlike traditional oratorios, Handel's compositions made use of a large chorus instead of solo artists. His best-known oratorio, "The Messiah," makes use of a large orchestra, choral singing and rising and falling tones to bring energy to the piece. Although many of Handel's oratorios contain musical characteristics similar to "The Messiah," none have reached its success. "The Messiah" is performed around the holidays and other times throughout the year by choruses and orchestras throughout the world.

Other Works

Much of Handel's career was spent writing music commissioned by royalty. For example, Handel's "Water Music" was composed for an outdoor concert at the request of King George I. His compositions included traditional baroque instruments, including horns, trumpets, flutes, oboes, bassoons, strings, a harpsichord and a timpani. For outdoor performances the harpsichord, timpani and strings were often omitted from compositions. The former two were difficult to set up outdoors, and the latter did not carry well outdoors.

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