This Week in Music History: Handel’s funeral in Westminster Abbey (1759)

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark.

This Week? Handel’s funeral was a suitably magnificent send-off for the man behind the Messiah. Born German and naturalised British, Handel was buried in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner, in the company of British icons such as Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling. The Baroque composer was German by birth, but the first magnificent 1784 Handel “Commemoration” concert was that of a Englishman.

Three choirs combined to sing at George Frideric Handel’s funeral on April 20, 1759: the choirs of the Chapel Royal, St Paul’s, and Westminster Abbey itself, the grand choice of venue politely requested (and paid for) by Handel in his will. He had died on 14 April. According to contemporary accounts, some 3,000 people attended the funeral.

The monument to George Frideric Handel in Westminster Abbey with the plaque recording his Commemoration by Roubiliac, 1762.
The monument to George Frideric Handel in Westminster Abbey, by Roubiliac, 1762.

Handel also asked in his will for a monument, which was made by the sculptor Roubiliac and erected in the Abbey in 1762. The score of “I know that my Redeemer liveth” from the Messiah—even then his most famous work—accompanies the sculpted composer.

What music did those three choirs sing? The main work performed was not Handel’s own, but the Funeral Sentences by William Croft, a British composer of Handel’s generation who had died some years previously. This choice of music was a sign of how highly Handel was regarded: Croft’s music was always sung at British state funerals, as in fact it still is.

In past years, Westminster Abbey had hosted much of Handel’s own music. He wrote four coronation anthems for King George II in 1727, including the beloved Zadok the Priest (below); and he also wrote the funeral anthem for George’s wife, Anne, in 1737 (“The ways of Zion do mourn,” above), all of which works were performed there.

Interior View of Westminster Abbey on the Commemoration of Handel by Edward Edwards, ca 1790.
Interior View of Westminster Abbey on the Commemoration of Handel by Edward Edwards, ca 1790.

In fact, the Abbey would continue to be closely associated with Handel, and not just because of his monument there. 1784 marked 25 years since Handel’s death, and 101 years since his birth—though it was thought at the time to be a round 100. So a commemoration of the composer’s life and works was arranged, which mainly took place in Westminster Abbey. It proved so astonishingly popular that it turned into a regular festival, and it was instrumental in resurrecting the British public’s interest in large-scale choral works.

That said, some interest in Handel’s choral music had always remained: the Messiah continued to receive annual performances long after his death, and other grand works of his were frequently revived and recycled as well, with almost ritual-like devotion. But the 1784 Commemoration consolidated and extended all that, and firmly re-established Handel as a key figure—even a quarter-century after his death—in British musical life.

Marktkirche in Halle, Germany, where Handel was baptised (2011)
Marktkirche in Halle, Germany, where Handel was baptised (2011)

In 1834, the 50th anniversary of the Commemoration was itself commemorated with another festival at Westminster Abbey. And so the tradition has continued. In 2009, 250 years since Handel’s death, another tribute to that Commemoration concert took place, but this time not in Handel’s adopted home of London, but in Halle, the German city of his birth. The extracts in this article are from that concert, with massed choirs joined by two combined orchestras: The English Concert and the Handel Festival Orchestra Halle. From Westminster Abbey, the place of his burial, we return to Halle’s Marktkirche—where he was baptized. It’s the perfect tribute to a truly international composer.

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