Never short of confidence or savoir faire, the young Handel seems to have set out to become the supreme musical cosmopolitan. After a thorough grounding in the contrapuntal tradition of his native Saxony, he honed his command of form and fluid, long-arched melody during his glittering three-year sojourn in Italy. Such was his international prestige at the age of 25 that in June 1710 he landed the post of Kapellmeister to Georg, Elector of Hanover, on terms so favourable as to stretch credulity: a generous salary, plus ‘leave to be absent for a 12-month or more if he chose it, and to go whithersoever he please’. Four months later, lured by the new-found craze for Italian opera, it pleased him to travel to London, then a seething city of nearly a million inhabitants.
Nay-sayers derided this exotic import, with its temperamental, overpaid prima donnas and castratos, as degenerate and effeminate. In a pamphlet entitled ‘Plain Reasons for the Growth of Sodomy’, one writer feared that Italian opera would sap the nation of her manhood and empire. London’s elite was undeterred. Premiered at the Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket, on February 24, 1711, Handel’s first London opera, Rinaldo caused a sensation. Even by the standards of the day, the plot – a sub-Ariosto mishmash of love, sorcery and Christian triumphalism set during the Crusades – was barely coherent. No matter: Rinaldo contained a string of showstoppers, most famously the ravishing sarabande ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’, recycled, like so many of the arias, from music Handel had written in Italy.
Audiences went wild over both the music and the no-expense-spared staging with its mermaids, aerial machines, fire-snorting dragons, spectacular transformations and, in one scene, a flock of live sparrows. But things could, and did, go wrong, to the delight of Addison and Steele, editors of the new – and proudly xenophobic – satirical magazine The Spectator. They compared Rinaldo, unfavourably, with a Punch and Judy show, and warned of the ‘inconveniences which the heads of the audience may suffer’ from the sparrows. When at one performance stage-hands forgot to move the wing-flats, their glee was unbounded. ‘We were presented with the prospect of the ocean in the midst of a delightful grove and I was not a little astonished to see a well-dressed young fellow in full-bottomed wig, appear in the midst of the sea, and without visible concern taking snuff.’
After the triumphant first run of Rinaldo, Handel departed, reluctantly, for Hanover. But he had already resolved to return to London. The pliant elector gave him permission to make the trip in September 1712 ‘on condition that he engaged to return within a reasonable time’. He never did, though as Georg knew he would succeed the ailing Queen Anne on the British throne (she died in August 1714), his Kapellmeister’s breach of contract was less reprehensible than might first appear. With his access to the most influential circles, Handel may even have been a useful source of information to the future George I.
A contemporary commentator noted: ‘His return to London was hailed by the musical world as a national acquisition, and every measure was adopted to make his abode pleasant and permanent.’ Indeed it was. Three hundred years ago, the brilliant young Saxon made London his home, staying first at Barn Elms (present-day Barnes), then at Burlington House in Piccadilly, the luxurious mansion of one of his aristocratic patrons, Lord Burlington. At the age of 26 he became the de facto resident composer of the Haymarket opera company, and a court ‘insider’. The following year, 1713, Queen Anne granted him an annual pension of £200, an arrangement continued by George I. Long before he took British citizenship in 1727, Handel was being acclaimed as ‘the Orpheus of our Century’, and Henry Purcell’s undisputed successor as Britain’s national composer.