Hand it to Handel

One nugget of wisdom I’ve heard before is “if you want to learn something, teach it.”  As a private school educator who taught pretty much every course in the standard high school social studies curriculum and a plethora of music courses, I can attest to the Truth of this statement.  I essentially taught myself, for example, the highlights of Western philosophy from teaching a Philosophy course for many years (a course I very much wish the school would revive).

I’m shifting increasingly towards teaching music exclusively (though I’m still teaching a couple of American History survey courses), and teaching a Pre-AP Music Appreciation class has been one of the great joys of that transition.  Years ago I created and taught a course called “History of American Popular Music,” which covered the early Tin Pan Alley tunes all the way through blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and beyond.  This Pre-AP course is focused on the great works of Western music, going back to the medieval period.

Currently, we’re wrapping up a big unit on Baroque music.  The Baroque style—as epitomized by greats like Bach, Monteverde, Corelli, Handel, and others—delights in contrasts.  Just as Baroque paintings highlight stark contrasts between light and dark, Baroque music revels in sudden contrasts in dynamics.  It also loves to play around with complexity, as any Bach fugue will quickly demonstrate.

The last composer in our unit is George Frideric Handel.  Handel, a German-born composer, made a major splash upon his arrival in England in the 1710s, where he sought to introduce Italian opera to sophisticated London crowds.  What was meant to be a temporary visit turned into over four decades, and Handel is interred at Westminster Abbey—a huge honor.  It’s one of those delightful twists of history that Handel the German became one of the most English composers in history—and one of the greatest composers of all time.

Of course, Handel’s most famous work is his oratorio Messiah, which did not initially catch on upon its debut.  Indeed, it took about a decade for Londoners to accept the work.  Even though the oratorio is based on Scripture about Christ, it was not intended to be a religious work.  Rather, oratorios were meant for popular entertainment, but Londoners rejected such a sacred text being performed in the grubbiness of the theatre.

After a decade of being played at Christmastime to raise funds for a local orphanage, the work caught on, and it continues to inspire and delight.  Listen for yourself:

I have to imagine that is what Heaven sounds like:  a heavenly choir singing praises to God for all Eternity.

If you’re interested in learning more about Handel the man, I highly recommend this BBC Great Composers documentary, which I am currently screening for my students in snippets:

With all the chaos in the world today, we need a powerful musical reminder that God is control.  Fortunately, Western music provides many opportunities for us to remember.


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