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Handel in Hamburg

Part one of a series that looks into the life of George Frideric Handel from the perspective of the many places he lived.

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Handel in Hamburg

George Frideric Handel‘s career as a professional musician began in Hamburg, Germany. Although he trained and worked a bit in Halle, his native city, Hamburg can be said to have initiated him into a world for which he has always been known—opera. Hamburg boasted, after all, the sole stable opera house outside of any court in Germany.

Handel initially got a position as a violinist in the orchestra, but quickly moved up in the world as one of its harpsichordists. He rose in the opera house’s ranks even further when his boss, the composer-cum-manager Reinhard Keiser, was unable to fulfill his composing duties. Handel was able, with a little help from his friend and colleague Johann Mattheson, to fill his new role brilliantly.


While few of Handel’s Hamburg operas survive, there is, in fact, only one that does. Better known by the name “Almira,” the work also happens to be one that he took to composing when Keiser could not do the job. In addition, “Almira” is also Handel’s first opera; an auspicious beginning, to say the least.

Thanks to the biographer John Mainwaring, we know that Handel’s life in Hamburg was anything but subdued. Picture the following incident involving his friend Johann Mattheson.

During Mattheson’s opera “Cleopatra,” the composer is busy singing the lead role of Anthony. Once Mattheson finishes he goes down into the pit in order to direct from the harpsichord. Unfortunately, Handel who was playing refuses to give up his seat. Shortly afterwards, the two men literally take it outside where they duel with swords, but with little effect—Mattheson’s sword breaks on one of Handel coat buttons and so ends the fight.  Apparently, the two became better friends after that.

Handel, Mattheson, and Buxtehude

Another one of Handel’s adventures in Hamburg involves a short trip to the nearby town of Lübeck where he and his friend, Johann Mattheson, went to meet the distinguished organist Dietrich Buxtehude. It was no secret that Buxtehude was looking for a successor, but it also meant marrying his daughter as part of a package deal. Unfortunately, neither Handel nor Mattheson were interested after they discovered that she was little too old for them. The next day they hopped on the first carriage back to Hamburg.

Here’s a video from the 2003 Canadian film “The Wandering Maestro,” which fancifully recreates the duel between Handel and Mattheson. The  music in the background comes from a later period in his life.


New Release

Our new release of the week is a program of folksongs and dances about sailors, traders, and lovers. Entitled La traverse miraculeuse, or “The Miraculous Crossing,” the program focuses on the traditional songs of Quebec with additional pieces relating to the struggle between the French and English in 18th-century Canada.

The music heard on this episode was performed by Les Charbonniers de L’Enfer, La Nef, The Parley of Instruments, The Harp Consort, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, and Hans Jörg Mammel.

Bernard Gordillo

Bernard Gordillo was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and raised in New Orleans. He holds degrees from Centenary College of Louisiana, the Early Music Institute at Indiana University, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London). Bernard also writes and hosts the Harmonia Early Music Podcast.

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