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George Fridric Handel and the first Hanoverian Kings

Updated on April 20, 2015

Messiah. Why we stand for the Hallelujah chorus

According to the legend, when the great oratorio Messiah was given its London premiere in 1743, King George II was so moved by the magnificence of the Hallelujah chorus, that he jumped to his feet and all the audience had to stand also, as was quite rightly required by Royal protocol. The practice of standing up during that magnificent musical tribute to divine Majesty is said to have dated from then. Of course, serious historians and musicologists have maintained that the King never attended a performance of Messiah and that the practice of listening to the chorus in a standing position didn't start until the 1750s. I, for one, don't give a fig about the maunderings of these dusty professorial killjoys. I prefer to go with the time hallowed beliefs and practices and let them “split hairs” to their hearts content in the spider bestrewn ivory towers that are the habitat of mouldy academia.

It's for this reason that I am going to recount for you, the relationship between the great composer Handel and the first two Georges. I'm not going to be over pedantic in saying whether such and such a legend is strictly true. The popularly believed stories are often more attractive to read about than the more rigidly researched versions. Sometimes they are also the truth as well.

King George I and Handel enjoying the Water Music


King George I and the Water Music

Our story begins in the year 1717. The Elector of Hanover had succeeded to the throne of Great Britain three years previously. As his first name was George, he became the first King of these islands to use this cognomen. It is said that King George could speak no English and was consequently rather homesick in his new kingdom. But there was one of his subjects, whom he would have recognised. Whether he would have greeted this compatriot with a kingly embrace, or a torrent of Teutonic expletives, has been the subject of debate ever since. You see, this countryman of the new King, was the composer George Fridric Handel and the last place he was supposed to be was in London. Handel had been the court composer to the electoral court in Hanover and had been given permission to visit London, but he was supposed to come back. London proved to be so attractive, that all thoughts of returning to Germany were put aside. But, as the course of history can sometimes resemble the plot of a third-rate soap opera, the Elector became King and came to London himself, to take up his new role and catch up, in more ways than one, with his truanting employee.

According to the legend, the composer got rather a roasting from his regal boss and the beautiful series of suites known as the Water Music was composed in order to mollify the angry King. I suspect the spider covered academics may have got it right in this case. Handel would have known that the Elector was going to become the King and the homesick monarch would probably have been quite pleased anyway, to renew acquaintance with any old face from Germany.

Whatever the truth, George Fridric Handel's Water Music was given its premiere on 17 July 1717. It was the principal entertainment on a trip down the Thames on the Royal barge and the King is said to have enjoyed the music so much, that he requested it to be played three times before the end of the evening. Since musicians and servants were usually refreshed by copious amounts of beer in those days, I suspect that the last performance would not have been of the same high standard as the first. But since his Majesty and the composer were probably both drunk as well, nobody minded.

Eighteenth century break- dancing to the Water Music

King George II earns his keep at Dettingen


George Fridric Handel and George II

Since time and tide will wait for no man, no matter how high his position, in the year 1727 King George I died and was succeeded by his eldest son, who became George II. Handel must've been a bit of a diplomat, because he managed to remain on good terms with both Kings. They hated each other, you see. The composer was commissioned to write the music for the coronation of the new King and a very good job he did indeed. The anthem, Zadok the Priest has been played at every coronation since. You don't have to be either a royalist or a Christian to be awe-inspired by this sublime composition. Even such well-known atheistic Republicans like Richard Dawkins are probably secretly in love with this celebration of quasi divine Majesty. This is as it should be. Great music has always had wonderful propagandistic properties. Watch the video and you will see what I mean.

I have already made reference to Messiah, so I shall skip forward now to the year 1749 and the celebrations for the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which had been signed in the previous year. This treaty had brought to an end the War of the Austrian succession. This particular war is remembered in British history for the battle of Dettingen, which was the last time that a King of these islands led his troops in battle. We won, of course, although King George II almost came to grief, when his horse bolted in the direction of the enemy forces.

But it is the celebration of the peace that we are mainly concerned about here and most particularly the great firework display that was given in Green Park on 27 April 1749, to rejoice at the, at least temporary, restoration of peace and harmony in Europe. As Handel was the premier composer, operating in London at the time, he was asked to supply the music. The Music for the Royal Fireworks is the result of his efforts. The music was a great success, but the fireworks display was not. It rained, (not unusual in London in April), and the huge wooden pavilion, that had been built to accommodate the fireworks, went on fire itself and the huge bass relief of the King fell off into the chaos. I'm accompanying this paragraph with a video of a brilliant modern fireworks display. Handel's overture complements it perfectly.

Music for the Royal Fireworks with real fireworks

Zadok the Priest could even melt Richard Dawkins

George III in old age


Epilogue: George III

This article was intended to be only about the first two Georges, but I would like to include the third King of that name before I finish.

King George III is known in history for two things mainly, the loss of the American colonies and his periodic attacks of mental illness. Nevertheless, despite these, he was still one of the best Kings to ever reign in this country. He remains my almost favourite monarch, second only to that Royal martyr, King Louis XVI of France. In his later years, when he was permanently immured in Windsor Castle and his illness had advanced to deepest senility, he liked to play on his harpsichord. It was usually the music of George Fridric Handel that echoed through those gloomy chambers. It's nice to think that the compositions of the great German composer helped to alleviate the dark depression, inflicted on this good man, by traitorous Americans and obstreperous sons.

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    • christopheranton profile imageAUTHOR

      Christopher Antony Meade 

      7 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Thanks tirelesstraveler.

      The notion that sounds should be banned for political reasons always struck me as a bit ridiculous anyway.

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 

      7 years ago from California

      Bravo! The listening to Handel's works gives me great joy. Exquisite videos. Excellent job educating us on the Kings George.

      Would have hated being in Europe during WWII when the music of Handel and Wagner were banned. Congratulations on an excellent article.

    • christopheranton profile imageAUTHOR

      Christopher Antony Meade 

      8 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Hi Nell.

      Handel was an impressario as well as a composer. (a kind of eighteenth century Andrew LLoyd Webber). This probably helped his popularity. Also classical music and opera were much more popular in those days than now. It wasn't considered elitest. So many people turned out for the dress rehearsal of The Fireworks Music at Vauxhall Gardens in 1749, that it caused a traffic gridlock throughout London.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      8 years ago from England

      Hi christopher, I never realised that Handel had a great influence with his music through three Georges, I do love the Water Music, its been a while since I listened to him so I will have to find my cds out again, fascinating hub, and voted and shared! nell

    • christopheranton profile imageAUTHOR

      Christopher Antony Meade 

      8 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Handel was actually rather grumpy drbj and quite hard on his musicians. One legend says that he once dangled an Italian soprano out the window, until she sang the perfect note. I suspect it never really happened though. It does seem a bit much.

      I saw that film twice. Both Mirren and Hawthorne were brilliant.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      8 years ago from south Florida

      So much fascinating information here, christopher, I will have to return to read it again more than once. Handel must have had a great deal of charisma as well as talent to survive several 'kingships.'

      BTW, did you see the film, 'The Madness of King George" - Helen Mirren was magnificent as his queen. And Nigel Hawthorne was lunatic perfection as the King.


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