Keep calm and listen to Handel

Enjoy five minutes of calm with George Handel on this Wednesday ‘hump’ day –

George Frideric Handel’s Pifa (Pastoral Sympony)

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George Handel by Harry Everett Townsend (1879 – 1941)

I’ve gone all ‘pastoral’ again this week. Must be James Herriot’s All Things Bright and Beautiful set in the gorgeous Yorkshire Dales that I’ve been reading.

Handel’s Messiah is arguably his most well-known piece of work, if not his finest. In the scene called ‘the annunciation to the shepherds’, movement no. 13 is a lovely five-minute piece which is known as the Pifa, or Pastoral Symphony.

There are lots of explanations surrounding the meaning of the term Pifa. My understanding is that as the shepherds are being introduced, Handel alludes to the music of the Italian Pifferari, the rural bagpipers who come down off the mountains to play in the village streets. If I’m wrong, please correct me!

Handel was born in Germany in 1685. He showed promising musical talent even as a young boy, however his father discouraged his musical pursuit believing that a profession in law would provide him with a more acceptable income. Fortunately his mother recognised his talent so she hid a clavichord in the attic where Handel would sneak up to practice. At eighteen, he dropped out of law and committed himself to a career in music.

At the age of nineteen he nearly got himself killed during a sword fight with fellow composer, Johann Mattheson. The sword struck a button on Handel’s chest saving his life. The reasons for their quarrel were never discovered. Teenagers!

At age 41, Queen Anne enticed him to London with a sizeable income (Dad would have been happy) where he remained for the rest of his life. His operas were so successful that he was permitted to choose his own leading ladies. During one such opera, two rival diva’s of their time began fighting on stage and had to be dragged away, tearing strips off their costumes as they went.

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George Frideric Handel (left) and King George I on the River Thames by Edouard Hamman, 1717

Over the next 30 or so years he continued composing and at the time of his death at the age of 74 he had written nearly 80 oratorios and operas. His final years were plagued with health issues including two strokes, injuries from a coach crash and blindness for the last eight years of his life. He kept composing.

Although experiencing bouts of depression he was known for his positive outlook, pleasant demeanour and generosity. He was never married or bore children, so he left his considerable fortune to his servants and numerous charities. Over 3000 people attended his state funeral. He is buried in London’s Westminster Abbey.

If you’re living in or visiting London I wonder if you’ve been to the Handel & Hendrix? “Separated by a wall and 200 years are the homes of two musicians who chose London and changed music.” This looks like a fascinating museum, beautifully restored.

It’s been a lovely little ‘project’ reading, albeit very briefly, into the life of George Handel. The portraits from this era give their subjects an austere quality and their talent, intimidating. But I have an inkling he would have been a friendly, down-to-earth sort of fellow.

2 thoughts on “Keep calm and listen to Handel

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