The Mysteries, Myths, and Truths about Mr Handel

David Vickers Sat 1st November 2014

David Vickers takes an in-depth look at the composer, his life, and works...

Not so long ago George Frideric Handel was best known to the general public for a few predictable things: Messiah, being 'German', his obesity, and for going blind. Thankfully that narrow perception has substantially altered over the last 30 years. Nowadays we appreciate that his career was often as dramatic in its ups, downs and incredible twists as the plot of one of his operas. Moreover, Handel has become the composer who most epitomises 'European-ness', and from our 21st-century perspective he represents an exemplary historical precedent for what it means to be multi-national. As much as we know about him, though, there are still riddles to be solved. Some of which we can begin to answer.

What do we know for sure? He was born at Halle in Lower Saxony on February 23, 1685. His barber-surgeon father intended for him to pursue the study of law at the historic local university, but was persuaded to let the boy study music with the local church organist Friedrich Zachow. Having acquired a good foundation in counterpoint and organ-playing, Handel obtained his first music job in March 1702 as organist at the local Calvinist cathedral. About a year later he quit, and travelled to Hamburg. Perhaps he was enticed to the cosmopolitan Hanseatic city by the famous organs in its churches, but he scraped a living as a back-desk violin-player at the Gänsemarkt opera house, and gradually worked his way up through the ranks until his first opera, Almira, was premiered there in January 1705.

Becoming increasingly fascinated by Italianate opera, Handel spent several years pursuing a glittering career in Italy (1706-10), where he wrote operas for Florence and Venice, a serenata for Naples, spectacular church music for Rome, and exquisite secular cantatas for aristocratic patrons in the papal city. After briefly occupying his post as Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover, from autumn 1710 Handel spent most of his creative life based in London producing a tremendous variety of music (usually for the theatre). In 1719 he was appointed music director of the Royal Academy of Music, an opera company devoted to producing Italian operas at the King’s Theatre on the Haymarket, and four years later he bought his own house on Brook Street in London. He became a naturalised British citizen in 1727, and, after the Royal Academy of Music fell apart a year later, formed his own opera company in partnership with the Swiss-born impresario John James Heidegger.

During the 1730s Handel gradually pioneered the genre of English oratorio in his opera seasons, but the imported genre of Italian opera struggled to remain afloat and his operatic activities took place under shifting administrative circumstances. On February 10, 1741, he gave his last performance of an Italian opera on the London stage. Afterwards his theatre seasons consisted solely of unstaged works in English, but in late 1741 the composer travelled to Dublin to give a series of subscription concerts, which included the premiere of Messiah on April 13, 1742. First performed in London a year later, the oratorio was not particularly popular at first, but it became established as a perennial favourite during the 1750s. From 1751 Handel gradually lost his eyesight, and he passed away on April 14 (Easter Saturday) 1759.

It seems that Handel had a supremely high regard of his own talent, or at least played such a role to perfection in the upper echelons of early Georgian Britain. He deliberately secured an exalted status in society by paying for his own Poet’s Corner memorial in Westminster Abbey. His installation into the pantheon was consolidated only a year after his death when John Mainwaring’s Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel became the first published biography of its kind devoted to one composer.

The rush to England

There has been a steady flow of literature devoted to Handel ever since. However, we still know little about his private life. Why did he never marry? There is no evidence whatsoever to support speculative claims that he was homosexual, but the apparent lack of a romantic attachments is peculiar: reading between the lines, I wonder if he was married to his career, eating habits (portraits certainly confirm that he put on weight in later life) and art collection (he acquired reproductive engravings of art by great masters). There were a few rumours of a youthful fling with the soprano Vittoria Tarquini when in Italy, a favourite (and lover) of Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici. Maybe some kind of scandalous liaison between the young Saxon and the diva explains why Handel does not seem to have secured any commissions directly from the Medicis.

There are other equally intriguing questions. Why did he decide to quit Italy at the age of 25, despite having enjoyed tremendous success in Rome and Venice? Handel stubbornly resolved to visit Italy at his own expense rather than become indebted to a wealthy sponsor, and this spirit of independence – combined with his own religious inclinations – probably led him to rebuff persistent attempts by his patrons (at least three of whom were Cardinals) to convert him to Roman Catholicism.

It might be that the university-educated Lutheran had no wish to become a Catholic cardinal’s pet musical monkey. Or, indeed, it might have become apparent to Handel that his Lutheranism would restrict his long-term prospects in Italy. After leaving Venice in early 1710 he secured a position as the Elector of Hanover’s Kapellmeister. But this raises one of the biggest mysteries about Handel’s life: why did he promptly desert his new post in preference for London? The fact that his new employer (the future George I) was heir to the British throne, and that Queen Anne’s health was notoriously poor, has led to some speculation that the composer’s move to London involved some sort of secret diplomatic mission. However, it is far-fetched to suggest that Handel was a Hanoverian James Bond spying at the British court in the early 1710s. After all, there is more than a grain of truth in the famous story about the Water Music for the Royal barge party on the River Thames in 1717 restoring him to his disgruntled ex-employer’s favour.

Another famous event in Handel’s life is also shrouded in mystery. In July 1733 he travelled to Oxford to give a week of concerts (most of them in Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre) during the university’s conferring of degrees. Contemporary gossipers chronicle the trip, and mention that he refused the offer of an honorary doctorate. Given Handel’s notable lack of modesty at other times, his apparent refusal is intriguing. Theories that he disliked having to pay a small fee for the honour, did not want to be compared with his erstwhile friend Maurice Greene (recently awarded this honour by Cambridge) or refused to submit an example of his work are unconvincing: we cannot rule out the possibility that Handel was wary of being used as a pawn in a political game between the notoriously Jacobite Oxonians and his Hanoverian patrons, or perhaps he really was modest occasionally.

There is, though, a wealth of documentation about Handel’s works, not least the evidence we can glean from his autograph manuscripts, and plenty of information about his performances was published in contemporary newspapers and discussed in letters between his circle of patrons, supporters and collaborators. The correspondence of his friends Mary Delany, the Earl of Shaftesbury and James Harris abound with admiring remarks about his new compositions, but there is little trustworthy indication of which of these many works Handel privately esteemed most highly. One can imagine from his deletions, corrections and alterations in his compositional scores what made his artistic instincts tick, but we do not know how he rated his own achievements. A letter written by his oratorio librettist Thomas Morell claims that he once asked the composer if the 'Hallelujah' chorus was his masterpiece, and apparently Handel responded negatively to the idea, and said that he thought the chorus 'He saw the lovely youth' inTheodora was far beyond it. Considering Handel’s genius for compassionate and sublime story-telling, there may be some truth in the tale that he preferred the narrative chorus from Theodora to his most famous moment of splendour in Messiah.

Likewise, we do not know whether Handel was familiar with Bach’s music. While his Leipzig counterpart certainly knew and performed a few bits of Handel’s music, and they had a mutual friend in Telemann, it is difficult to imagine what Handel would have thought of Bach’s cerebral writing (though we should not underestimate Handel’s ability to be cerebral when he wanted to be). We do know that Handel, like Mozart later on, could be scornful of composers of lesser ability. Apparently he once threw a piece of music written by Greene out of the window because 'it wanted more air'. However, he certainly wasn’t snobby about other good composers: he incorporated musical ideas, themes, tricks, and sometimes even larger chunks, from works written by others into his own pieces.

Scholars have recently shown that Handel was far from alone in his use of musical 'borrowing', but it would be illuminating to know how he actually felt about the method of recycling music by other composers. Judging from his choice of sources, Handel seems to have particularly liked music by Alessandro Scarlatti, Lotti and Gasparini (all of whom he had met or probably heard works by during trips to Italy), Keiser (for whom he worked in Hamburg), his friend Telemann, and his former Royal Academy colleague Bononcini. Most remarkably, Handel also used musical ideas by earlier 17th-century composers including Carissimi, Stradella and Blow. Scholars have identified a lot of Handel’s borrowings, but his motivation for making them is a formidable enigma.

Much of what we know about the man derives from anecdotes preserved in 18th-century chronicles by authors who knew him, such as Mainwaring, John Hawkins and Charles Burney. Apparently, he liked to attend evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral, play its great organ, and retire to the pub afterwards with the gentlemen of the choir for an evening of music and refreshment. Handel seems to have had a great sense of humour and generously supported charities (the Foundling Hospital and the Fund for Decay’d Musicians). We know that he worshipped devoutly at his local parish church in St George’s, Hanover Square, in his later years, tried out an early fortepiano, but rode a horse very rarely; he enjoyed a dramatic reading of John Milton’s closet drama Samson Agonistes (which no doubt played a part in his decision to compose Samson a few years later) and appreciated exotic plants.

We also know that Handel was a tough perfectionist and had a terrible temper. He threatened to throw the petulant prima donna Cuzzoni out of the window because during a rehearsal of Ottone she complained about her aria 'Falsa imagine'. During rehearsals for Flavio, he suggested that more people would pay to watch the contentious tenor Alexander Gordon jumping down onto his harpsichord than to hear the Scotsman sing. When Carestini declared that 'Verdi prati' in Alcina was 'unfit' for him to sing, Handel furiously insisted that he would withhold the star castrato’s wages unless he relented. Even the Prince and Princess of Wales did not escape his censure if they were late arriving for sneak previews of oratorios at Carlton House.

Ego and occupation

Other anecdotes claim that the composer’s voracious appetite led him to order enough food for several people when dining alone, and that he would serve his guests unremarkable wine while sneaking into another room in order to help himself to expensive port under the pretence of creative inspiration having suddenly struck. Roubiliac’s statue of the composer in Vauxhall Gardens in 1738 suggests that Handel was not short of egotism long before Messiah conquered the world. Now in the V&A, the statue depicts him in casual dress, playing a lyre, and sitting on a pile of his own scores. It is hard to imagine any other composer until the peak of Romanticism feeling comfortable with such a public image that made obvious comparisons between a living musician and the mythical Orpheus and Timotheus.

On the other hand, Handel could respond to unfair box-office failures with dignity and humour. Apparently he joked that the empty theatre at Theodora would help the music to sound better. He certainly understood that he was subject to the whims of fashion, and one of the greatest fascinations for us is his willingness constantly to diversify and experiment with the types of music theatre he would offer his audience. The documented number of performances of a work during its first run reveals that some of his finest music dramas were commercial failures (Partenope, Serse, Semele and Hercules were flops). In contrast, other masterpieces that are now seldom revived were popular hits at their first appearance (eg Admeto, Sosarme, Arianna in Creta), although some of his box-office successes are also popular nowadays (Rinaldo, Giulio Cesare, Alcina, Judas Maccabaeus).

An intriguing puzzle for historians is the lack of evidence about what Handel actually did for most of the time – he did not compose, revise, rehearse and perform his music theatre works all year round, so how else did he occupy his time? One wonders what he got up to during the mid-1710s when he is alleged to have lived as a guest at Lord Burlington’s grand house in Piccadilly, and how much time he actually spent at the Duke of Chandos’s country palace Cannons between 1717 and 1719.

He was extremely busy during the peak of his operatic career, but in 1740 his friend and collaborator Charles Jennens complained of Handel’s laziness, and from then on the pace at which the composer worked slowed down considerably. The explanation could be mundane – he suffered a serious paralytic attack in 1737, after which he had good reason not to push himself quite so hard, and as he grew older his health declined. Indeed, the one occasion when Handel tried to repeat the intense activity of full theatre season during the 1740s backfired horribly: his 1744‑45 oratorio series of 24 subscription concerts was poorly attended and nearly collapsed only a quarter of the way through the season. This caused him to publish a letter in the Daily Advertiser expressing mortification that his best efforts no longer pleased the public.

Notwithstanding our fascination with the man, Handel remains a figure of admiration and affection because of the enduring quality and power of his music. He was regarded in his own lifetime as the musical heir of Homer and Milton, and even now it is difficult to think of many composers who created such an astonishing variety of masterpieces: our appreciation of his Biblical dramatic oratorios and Italian operas – few of which are exactly alike in dramatic tone and musical character – should not overshadow our estimation of his genius in setting great English odes by Milton (L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato) and Dryden (Alexander’s Feast), the pastoral charm and sentimentality of Acis and Galatea, the vivacious wit and subtlety of his Italian secular cantatas, the brilliance of his Latin and English church music, and the inventive élan of his orchestral works (not least his innovation of the organ concerto).

A remarkably full amount of Handel’s works are preserved more or less intact (it seems that only a few early German works are lost). Moreover, a broad variety of the composer’s music has never been out of repertoire since his own lifetime: Zadok the Priest has been performed at every British coronation since 1727, festive performances of Messiah are a firmly established tradition (though more seldom at Easter, for which Handel and the librettist Jennens intended it), and tunes from the Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks are familiar to almost everyone. Although the renaissance of his operas has taken longer to permeate public awareness, a few popular arias were long-admired in arrangements, such as the ubiquitous 'Largo' based on 'Ombra mai fù' (actually marked larghetto) from Serse. Even the music used in recent years for the UEFA Champions League (both at football matches and on television broadcasts) is a blatant parody of Zadok the Priest.

If he has suffered in the past from being misrepresented by musicians and misunderstood by audiences, Handel is undoubtedly an icon of the Western classical tradition with very few comparable peers. The revival of his operas and English music theatre works – hand in hand with the early music 'revolution' – has brought about a phenomenal transformation in our experiences of his music. His works have never been more widely available, performed and appreciated than they are today. Today, we know more about Handel and his music than any other generation has between our time and his, not least thanks to almost every one of his music theatre works being issued on CD at least once (albeit too often in performances that are abridged and unidiomatic). Notwithstanding swings in fashion and perception, it is remarkable that our obsession with Handel has persisted without interruption from his day till ours, as with no other composer before and very few since.

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