The newly-ascended King George was knowledgeable about music and had refined taste and, as King of Great Britain, he could afford to indulge it. In 1717 the king and assembled guests set off down the Thames on a lavish barge. Adjacent to the royal barge was a second barge with fifty musicians under Handel’s direction. This was the first performance of two dance suites which we now know as the Water Music. The king was so enthralled by the music that, when the performance was over, he immediately commanded two further performances before allowing the vessels to return to the shore.

The Jacobite unrest in 1716 delayed the start of the London opera season when Handel’s new opera, Amadigi di Gaula, written a little earlier, was premiered at the (now called) King’s Theatre. (The theatre, previously known as the Queen’s Theatre, has traditionally changed its name over the centuries to match the gender of the reigning monarch.) Further concertos, ceremonial music, and instrumental music followed, as did the Brockes Passion – Handel’s only complete surviving work entirely in his native language of German, and his only attempt at setting the Passion story. (The text is not biblical as in the Passions of Bach, but written in literary verse.) It was written for a trip to Germany to visit his ailing mother in 1719. Whilst in Germany he met an old friend from his university days in Halle, Johann Christoph Schmidt. He persuaded Schmidt to enter his service as a copyist, amanuensis and secretary. Schmidt returned to London with Handel, anglicised his name to John Christopher Smith and remained in service for the rest of Handel’s life. J.S. Bach was Kapellmeister at Cöthen at this time – a mere twenty miles from Halle. On learning of Handel’s proximity, Bach is reported to have dropped everything and immediately set off by the first available stagecoach to meet him, arriving in Halle a matter of two hours after Handel had left to return to London. This was the closest that these two eminent German Baroque giants ever came to meeting.

Between 1717 and 1719 Handel entered the service of the Earl of Carnarvon (James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos and prominent patron of the arts) as a composer in residence. This position was held concurrently with his royal duties and does not seem to have been too onerous. The only works which we can attribute directly to this employment are the twelve Chandos Anthems, written and premiered at Cannons, a large house in Middlesex, and the ancestral seat of James Brydges. The Duke, a flautist, had a private orchestra consisting of 24 instrumentalists. Fellow native German, and composer of the famous Beggar’s OperaJohann Pepusch (1667-1752) was the Master of Music at Cannons from 1716. He saw the size of the musical establishment at first expand, and then decline in the 1720s in response to Brydges' pecuniary losses in the South Sea Bubble – a financial crash which took place in 1720.


During the winter of 1718-1719, the leading members of the London nobility, under the patronage of the king, started a movement to establish Italian opera in London on a long-term basis. The enterprise was known as the Royal Academy of Music and Handel was appointed as its Musical Director. The finest singers in Europe were to be engaged and, in 1719, Handel set off on a whistle-stop European tour to audition, cajole and engage these singers. The Academy opened formally in 1720 with performances of Handel’s opera Radamisto. There followed eight years of unqualified success. London became the operatic capital of Europe, easily attracting the best singers, orchestral players, librettists, directors and scenery designers. The ‘catchy’ melodies of the arias by Handel and his colleagues quickly became fashionable, universally popular and well-known. This music was soon being published in all manner of unauthorised arrangements on cheap sheet music for use in the home. Handel was at the top and centre of this musical revolution, revered by the London public, and the favoured musician of the Royal household. He was truly the equivalent of a modern celebrity – with wealth, fame and influence, but also with talent! (One can perhaps draw a more contemporary parallel between this and the general common popularity that the melodies of songs by groups such as The Beatles and Abba enjoy today, in terms of how much they might be regarded as a type of musical common currency, instantly familiar to many corners of the social demographic.)

The next six years saw Handel at the summit of his achievement as an opera composer and dramatist, producing the operas Guilio Cesare, Alessandro, Floridante, Tamerlano, Scipione (from which comes the regimental march The British Grenadiers), Ottone, and Rodelinda. It is somewhat ironic that the man giving the newly-constituted Great Britain its fresh musical voice was a native German, writing operas in Italian. In total Handel composed over forty Italian operas in thirty years. Tamerlano saw the first visit to London of the greatest Italian tenor of the day, Francesco Borosini, who was engaged for a single season for a fee of £2,000 - a staggering amount of money at the time (and roughly equivalent to £1m in today’s money). In Alessandro, two famous prima donnas were engaged at a cost of £1,600 each (note the gender pay gap!).

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