In 1703, Handel made a visit to Lübeck with a view to succeeding the great German organist and composer Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) as organist of the Marienkirche. However, since one of the rather unconventional conditions of the appointment was that the successful candidate should be obliged to marry Buxtehude’s only daughter, who was by no means in the first flush of youth, Handel, like J.S. Bach two years later, declined. The period in Hamburg was not a prolific one in terms of composition. Apart from one early opera, Almina (which, bizarrely, is set partly in Italian and partly in German) and some rudimentary instrumental sonatas, there is nothing else from this period which survives.


A visit to Florence in 1706, where his first truly Italian opera, Rodrigo, was produced, brought Handel some valuable recognition and a significant amount of money, as well as the romantic favours of the local prima donna, Vittoria Tarquini, with whom he was later to have a further and somewhat scandalous liaison in Venice. By 1707, Handel was in Rome, playing the organ of the church of St John Lateran, and employed as a household musician in the Court of Marquis Ruspoli. Here he supplied sacred cantatas for the chapel, secular cantatas for parties, weddings and civic events, and a couple of early oratorios which were conducted at their premieres by Corelli (1653-1713). The motets Dixit Dominus and Laudate Pueri also date from this time. Between 1707 and 1711 there are records of Handel conducting his music in other Italian cities, including Siena, Venice and Naples. These formative years in Italy were decisive in Handel’s career; Italy was the European home of opera, oratorio, the secular cantata, and the instrumental forms of the sonata and concerto. During this time Handel also had professional collaborations and friendships with Corelli, Caldara (1670-1736), Pasquini (1637-1710), Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725), Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), Lotti (1667-1740), Albinoni (1671-1751) and Gasparini (1661-1727). During this Italian period he composed over one hundred cantatas (most of which are now lost), two oratorios (Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno and Oratorio per la Resurrezione di Nostro Signor) and a formidable body of miscellaneous instrumental music. The musicologist Winton Dean, writing in Grove, says: “[Handel] arrived in Italy as a young man learning his trade, his music sometimes fumbling and with a certain crudeness and lack of form, and he left it a polished and fully equipped artist with a mastery of form under his belt.” The fact that he composed only two Italian operas (Nero and Agrippina) whilst in Rome can be attributed largely to a papal decree which was in force at this time and which forbade the performance of opera.


Whilst in Italy Handel made a number of useful contacts, specifically in Venice. These included Prince Ernst of Hanover (brother of the Elector of Hanover and the nominated future King George I of Great Britain), and Baron Kielmansegg (Master of the Horse to the Elector). These friendships were to shape Handel’s future as, in June 1711, he left Rome for Hanover and was appointed Kapellmeister to the Elector at the substantial annual salary of 1,000 Thalers. One of the conditions of his employment was that he should have an immediate leave of absence of twelve months in order to visit London. (No doubt his employer, the imminent heir to the British throne, was aware that he was merely transferring Handel from one pocket to another – so to speak – and, by exposing Handel to the British musical establishment, was cautiously paving the way for the inevitable establishment of his own musical court in London.) In September 1711 Handel left Hanover and travelled to London via the Netherlands. This first visit to London lasted for eight months.

Handel arrived in London at a time when the music of the Stuart dynasty was uttering its last gasps. (The Stuart dynasty was founded in Scotland in 1371 with the accession of Robert II, and in Great Britain in 1603 with the accession of James VI of Scotland, King of Scots (1567-1625) and, as James I, King of Great Britain (1603-1625). It ended with the death of Queen Anne in 1714.) A service of thanksgiving, held in 1707 in the newly consecrated St Paul’s Cathedral, and attended by Queen Anne to commemorate the parliamentary Acts of the Union of England and Scotland under one crown and one flag, inadvertently saw the end of a great musical tradition, namely, music composed for the very last time for such an occasion by composers and singers from the Royal Household – by which I mean the Chapel Royal. This included composers such as William Croft (1678-1727) and Jeremiah Clarke (1674-1707) who had been somewhat left behind by the great raft of composers of the late Reformation, trying in vain to fill the vast shoes of Henry Purcell who had died in 1695.

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