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Handel or Häendel? Getting a Handle on the Great Composer’s Name

George Frideric Handel
Painting by Thomas Hudson
Wikimedia Commons

Happy 330th birthday to George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) – or is it George Frederick Handel, or Georg Friedrich Häendel?  Whatever you call him, he’s certainly one of the greatest Baroque Era composers, right up there with Johann Sebastian Bach. With his Hallelujah Chorus from the oratorio Messiah, he’s written probably the most instantly recognizable piece of classical music alongside the opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

The mystery of the correct form of his name is really no mystery at all. Handel was born as Georg Friedrich Häendel, but when he left Germany in 1712 and permanently settled in England, he adopted the English form of his name. In fact Handel became a naturalized British subject in 1727, leaving no doubt as to where his loyalties were, and he seems to have spelled his own name more than one way.

Of course in Germany and to Germans, Handel is still Häendel, and that’s fine. It seems to me though, that if there is some uncertainty about which form of his name is “more correct” for us to use today, maybe it came about with the beginning of the “authentic,” or “period instrument movement” that really got going in the 1970s and 80s with its emphasis on historically-informed practices. It could be that some of the more “narrowly interpretive types” within the movement might have wanted to “de-Anglicize” him to get back to his “real” German “source.”

You will still occasionally hear from some people who insist that there is only one correct way to play Baroque or earlier music, and that is on authentic instruments in a rigidly prescribed style determined to be “historically correct.”  Thank goodness, today we have marvelous period-instrument groups that give wonderful performances of early music, blending historical insight with inspiration, and we have modern instrument groups playing Baroque music more often as well, taking advantage of the different sounds modern instruments produce.  The more, the merrier.

However someone may try to argue it, Handel’s “handle” is at least as much Handel as it is Haendel.  It’s all a matter of interpretation, so let’s just enjoy the great music from this universal genius.  Here’s what I say to all that: