Suppression fails to bury Handel's musical talent

THE world of classical music is dominated by about a dozen truly great composers.

Among those composers, some personalities can be conjured up in a single visual image: Beethoven, cut off from the world by his deafness, taking a solitary walk in the countryside near his home; the precocious boy Mozart, in powdered wig and satin suit, astonishing the nobility of Europe with his brilliance; Schubert, chubby and bespectacled, playing his songs to an admiring group of friends or, perhaps, the romantic figure of Chopin, terminally ill but summoning up the last of his strength to captivateaudiences in Paris and London with his uniquely poetic piano music.

The personality of George Frideric Handel is rather more elusive and less easily defined in pictorial terms. We see a portly gentleman looking serious and remote, but the image tells us very little about the man himself. We do know, however, that he was a larger-than-life character, much talked about during his lifetime, whose gruff sense of humour, great kindness and quick temper were the source of many amusing anecdotes.

From a very early age, he also showed two more characteristics which would remain very much in evidence throughout his life: a fierce independence of mind combined with a thorough understanding of his own great gifts and their value to the musical world.

Handel was born in 1685 at Halle, a town in the area of North Germany then known as Saxony. His father, already in his sixties when Handel was a young boy, was determined that George Frideric would become a lawyer, and, noticing that the boy showed a remarkable talent for music, he did everything he could to obstruct and suppress his interest in the subject.

This made the thought of music even more desirable, particularly to such a strong-willed boy as Handel. He managed to get an elavichord (a portable keyboard instrument) placed in a room at the top of the house, and when the rest of the family was asleep, he spent many hours contentedly practising.

Some years later, when Handel was about eleven years old, he was allowed to go with his father to visit a relative at the court of an important prince. One morning, after a service in the chapel, the boy was improvising on the organ when something about the authority and fluency of the playing attracted the attention of the prince.

The prince was astonished to find that such excellent playing had come from such a young lad. On hearing of Handel's difficulties with his father, the prince persuaded the old man to relent and allow such a great talent to be guided by good teaching; he also provided enough money for the studies to begin immediately.

For the next few years, Handel was allowed to follow his love for music without hindrance and he made rapid progress in every aspect of musical theory, in addition to developing his skills as oboist, violinist and keyboard player.

At the age of 17, he enrolled in the University of Halle, but a year later, he was already working as a violinist in the opera orchestra of Hamburg. So began many years of travel, hard work and complete dedication to music.

By the time Handel first arrived in London, he was a 25-year-old celebrity. During travels in Italy, he had become famous as a harpsichordist and organist of brilliance, power and originality, and his high reputation in Germany led to immediate acceptance at the court of Queen Anne and entry into fashionable London society.

Handel also took a great interest in the Foundling Hospital, a home for orphans and deserted young children. To raise funds for the home, he donated his concert fees, bequeathed valuable manuscripts and arranged for annual performances of his most celebrated work - Messiah .

In the last decade of his life, he suffered from increasingly bad health and encroaching blindness. When he died at the age of 74, he was given the final honour of being buried among other great men at Westminster Abbey. Mr Kember is Head of Opera Studies, APA