George Frideric Handel

Died - Apr 14, 1759   |   Genres - Music, Theater, Drama

Share on

Biography by "Blue" Gene Tyranny

Along with Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, Händel continues to be one of the most popular composers from the Classical era. Although born in Germany, he made his fame in England, and except for a Passion and a few songs with German texts, and more in Latin, French, and Italian, his vocal works are in the English language. Händel's personality (like those of the other "great composers") has been distorted over time into the figure of a stern and pious disciplinarian, an image which cannot be further from the reality of this man who loved good food, drink, and general hedonistic pleasures. He was said to have had a wonderful sense of humor which would soften the criticisms of his easily raised temper and his imperious stubbornness. Händel was raised a Lutheran but was no bigot, and loved England for its comparative religious freedom. "A good old Pagan at heart" was how the Victorian-age critic Edward Fitzgerald described him. However, in Farinelli (1994), perhaps for reasons of dramatic contrast, Händel is shown as a manipulator and a brute, but one possessed of musical genius. He is championed by the castrato singer Carlo Broschi (known as Farinelli) who is the object of both Händel's admiration and his scorn (Händel calls Farinelli a "music machine" and makes fun of his manhood). But Farinelli, whose voice is electronically synthesized from that of a coloratura soprano and a countertenor for this movie (there being no more living castrati), nevertheless recognizes the composer's genius, and challenges both himself and his brother to make music that is deeper. In a very touching scene, Farinelli's brother, himself a composer, explains to Händel how he began the composition of his opera Orpheus the day that Farinelli was castrated. In order to prove that he can sing music that is not built only of flourishes and trills, Farinelli sings Händel's opera Rinaldo (1711) to great audience acclaim. Historically, this early opera was Händel's first big success in England, and featured three alto castrati, with the title role being taken by the famous castrato Nicolini (Niccolò Grimaldi). The sets were elaborate, as they are in the film, including live sparrows placed in Almirena's grove. Nevertheless, in the next scene of the movie, Händel confronts Farinelli backstage between acts, and claims that he has (emotionally) castrated him, so that he will never compose another opera. As Farinelli sings the last act, he behaves as if he is putting a curse on Händel by aiming piercing looks and his voice from the stage toward the composer, who passes out in his opera box. During the music, there is also a brief but shocking flashback to the young boy in a bath of milk that is slowly becoming red with the blood from his mutilation. Emotions are deeply mixed, complex, and often wisely left ambiguous in this powerful film.

Händel's music is quoted in approximately 70 feature films, with the most prevalent reference being from his world-famous oratorio The Messiah (1742). Besides countless brief stabs of the "Hallelujah Chorus" in comic situations, selections from this work appear in the action-drama Face/Off (1997), Die xue shuang xiong (Bloodshed of Two Heroes) (1989), Heaven Help Us (1985) (aka Catholic Boys), Chassé-croisé (1981), A Thousand Clowns (1965), and Sissi (1955). Subtle uses of the composer's music are found in Vatel (2000), The Einstein of Sex: Life and Work of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld (1999), Handel's Last Chance (TV, 1996), The Sorceress (TV, 1993), Orlando (1992), Dangerous Liaisons (1988), and The Great Mr. Handel (1942).