Famous Composers: George Frideric Handel

Famous Composers George Frideric Handel  Sonatica Blog

GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL (1685 - 1759), his own final choice of spelling, was born at Halle on 23rd February 1685; his father was a doctor (a ‘barber-surgeon’) and his mother, Dorothea nee Taust, the daughter of a Protestant priest. One is at liberty to shrug aside the romantic legend of a curly-headed six year-old being discovered late at night divinely playing the harpsichord by moonlight in a cold attic, but the fact remains that Handel was a child prodigy. His natural instincts were encouraged by his aunt Anna Taust rather than by his parents, but eventually his father consented to music lessons and even allowed him, at the age of eleven, to go by himself to Berlin (a week’s journey in those days) in order to attend the unconventional court of Electress Sophia Charlotte, to whom music was all that mattered.

Soon afterwards young Handel was deputy organist at Halle Cathedral and at seventeen, although supposedly studying law at the university, was appointed head organist. A successful career in that field appeared to be open to him, but he was beginning to feel the tug of the stage and after a year or so left the organ-loft at Halle for the opera house at Hamburg, where between 1703 and 1706 he played in the orchestra and also secured the production of two operas of his own. Realization that he had found his natural bent then drove him south to Italy, the land of opera; by what route or at whose expense (it can hardly have been at his own) has not been determined.

Although Handel never married, it is believed that during the three years he spent in Italy he had a love affair with a young singer; historians have been unable to agree as to which young singer it was out of the many he must have encountered while travelling back and forth (several times) between Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples. What is more important is that in the course of his wanderings he experimented to good purpose in the chamber-cantata form recently popularized by Alessandro Scarlatti (see page 19) and also composed two more operas - Roderigo and Agrippina. By 1710, however, he was back in his native land as musical director at the court of the Elector of Hanover and was presently granted leave of absence to visit London, where he stayed for six months and produced Rinaldo at the Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket. He loved London so much that a year or so later (he was twenty-seven at the time) he returned there, stayed on and - although still nominally on the Elector’s pay-roll - accepted an allowance from Queen Anne. Consequently there were some awkward moments when, on Queen Anne’s death in 1714, Handel’s Hanoverian employer followed him across the North Sea to fill the vacant seat on the English throne. Good standing with the nobility, however, weighed in his favour, and the temporary breach between the two Georges, king and composer, was soon healed. Both lived in London for the rest of their lives, the former becoming British ex officio and the latter by naturalization. Over the next twenty-seven years the story of Handel is the story of his fluctuating operatic fortunes. As manager and artistic director of the King’s (previously Queen’s) Theatre he did far more than anyone else to establish Italian opera seria as a permanent feature of musical life in London. His own contribution included over thirty operas - among them such fine works as Gmlio Cesare, Admeto, Orlando, Alcina and Serse - but up to 1730 or thereabouts he received assistance from the already established composers Attilio Ariosti and Giovanni Bononcini while he himself scoured Italy for the best singers that could be found. For a time all went well (and indeed the policy seemed to be both prudent and enlightened), but without knowing it Handel was stirring up trouble. For one thing Ariosti and Bononcini, who were fifteen to twenty years his senior and had their own partisans, were jealous and uncooperative, doing all they could to undermine their associate’s personal position and prestige. For another, there was spiteful rivalry between the two famous sopranos Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni; this reached its climax during a gala performance of Bononcini’s Astianatte when (egged on by the audience) they indulged in a free fight on the stage with no holds barred and no quarter asked or given. Such goings-on under royal patronage could not pass without comment in an age which (like our own) relished any form of scandal, and they were soon satirized by John Gay in The Beggar’s Opera (1728, with music arranged from traditional and currently popular airs by Handel’s Anglo-German contemporary John Christopher Pepusch); this witty little affair and other ballad-operas which followed it were exactly suited to the taste of the age. In the outcome their influence proved to be short-lived, but it lasted long enough to imperil the future prospects of Handel’s venture. With bulldog determination he continued along his chosen road (now alone and unassisted), although from 1732 onwards he found it necessary to vary the exclusively operatic diet with oratorios like Esther, Saul and Israel in Egypt, and with what might conveniently be called cantatas - Acis and Galatea and Alexander’s Feast. (The oratorios and cantatas were in English, not in Italian, and in the oratorios a very prominent share in the proceedings was allotted to the chorus; but it should be stressed that all these works were given on the stage - sometimes with stage costume and action.) In 1741, however, when financial ruin (not for the first time) stared him in the face, Handel the impresario wisely decided to cut his losses and shut up shop - and Handel the composer abandoned opera for ever.

All this while, when away from the theatre, he had produced a fair quantity of short choral works (e.g. the ‘Chandos’ anthems) and a large quantity of instrumental music. This included the Water Music, some forty concertos (not as a rule concertos in the modern sense of the term, but merely concerted works for various instrumental combinations) and several volumes of harpsichord pieces. Although most of Handel’s keyboard music belonged to his early years and looks comparatively unimportant when set beside the rest of his output, a nodding acquaintance helps one to easy familiarity with the forms of gavotte, bourree, minuet, courante, sarabande, gigue and fugue - which were exploited to even greater purpose by his twin, Johann Sebastian Bach (see chapter 8). The first six were contemporary dance-measures; in a fugue - fuga, literally ‘flight’ - each vocal or instrumental line entered in turn with the same theme or a slightly modified ‘answer’ to it (perhaps alongside a ‘countertheme’), thereby soon becoming involved in an intricate web of counterpoint. When technique is matched by inspiration a fugue can be one of the most exciting forms of musical expression yet devised; when inspiration is lacking it may be no more than a laborious academic exercise. Many - though not all - of Handel’s and Bach’s belonged to the former category.

Soon after the collapse of his operatic schemes Handel composed the most popular oratorio of all time - Messiah - and then went to Ireland, taking the manuscript along with him. He was rapturously welcomed and the nine months he spent there helped to lighten his depression and stabilize his financial situation: Messiah had its world premiere on 13th April 1742 at the Music Hall (not musichall) in Fishamble Street, Dublin, where, too, some of his other recent works were much better received than they had been in London. Thenceforth Handel concentrated his attention largely on oratorio, although he also produced the ‘Dettingen Te Deum’ and the cantata Semele; five at least of these oratorios were masterpieces - Samson, Belshazzar, Solomon, Theodora and Jephtha. It was while he was engaged on Jephtha (1752) that his eyesight began to fail; presently he became totally blind. For seven years, with characteristic courage, he went on conducting his own works from memory and actually played the organ at a performance of Messiah on 6th April 1759. But by that time he was not only blind but also very ill; a week later, on the evening of Good Friday, he fell into a coma, and he breathed his last before the next day dawned.

As has already been hinted, the dividing line between the sacred and the secular was not very clearly drawn in mid-eighteenth- century London, and it is significant that of the eight oratorios which followed Messiah seven were first given at Covent Garden and one at the theatre in the Haymarket which had been the scene of so many of the composer’s former triumphs and disasters. It is even more significant that the practice has been revived of recent years - with stage-performances of such fine works as Theodora and Semele, which were in danger of falling into undeserved neglect. When revivals of Handel’s Italian operas are undertaken, however, there are some tricky problems to be faced.

(1) As in Scarlatti’s, the space between the opening and concluding choruses is as a rule filled with a succession of arias and duets connected by recitative, which is normally unaccompanied except by harpsichord continuo, although here and there (cf. Scarlatti, page 21), a string orchestra is employed. Eighteenth-century audiences did not think they had had their money’s worth inside five hours, while those of the twentieth become restive after two and a half; therefore when Handel’s operas are given today ruthless cutting is necessary. It is impracticable to shorten the recitative to any significant extent, since this tells the story, carries on the dramatic action and indeed provides the only logical justification for the work being played on the stage. So inevitably about fifty per cent of the aria/duet content has to be sacrificed, nor can the sacrifice be determined solely on musical grounds: every protagonist must be allowed a due proportion of the vocal say.

(2) In most of Handel’s operas at least one of the leading ‘male’ parts was written for a lyric soprano - or possibly a contralto - who ranked second only to the leading soprano playing the heroine, a procedure later endorsed by Mozart in Figaro, Gounod in Faust arid Strauss in Der Rosenkavalier. But Handel’s characters were not, as a rule, mere striplings immersed in calf-love like Cherubino, Siebel and Octavian, and one’s instinct cries out for masculine representation.

(3) Then there is the problem of casting the roles which early eighteenth-century convention decreed should be played by castrati (male singers who before adolescence had consented or been forced to undergo castration in order to prevent their voices from breaking); here the physical attributes of a male-impersonator would often be histrionically unsatisfying, the penetrating timbre of a falsetto countertenor vocally unsatisfying.

(4) The most logical way out of these difficulties is to take the bull by the horns and replace all Principal Boys by tenors and all castrati by full-blooded baritones. This involves a spate of key-transpositions, with consequent re-arrangement not only of the accompaniments to the arias but also of the key-sequences in the preceding and subsequent recitative passages, so that the detailed effect may admittedly in places be some way from the composer’s original intentions; any compromise solution, however, is unlikely to get much closer.

Enough has been said, I think, to indicate that anyone who attempts to prepare a Handel opera for present-day consumption faces no easy task, but at least he can take one comfort: so long as he recognizes that neither oboists nor those who listen to them take kindly to four- or five-minute sessions of uninterrupted reed-blowing, he will find that the instrumental balance requires little adjustment: paradoxically it was in his stage-works rather than in his concertos that Handel proved himself an early master of what is nowadays called orchestration, using harps, bassoons, horns, trumpets and even trombones to obtain quite startling colour-effects.

The expression ‘typically Handelian’ is often used in reference to such straightforward evocations of healthy sentiment as ‘For unto us a child is born’ (Messiah), but in truth this style was only narrowly typical of Handel himself, although widely typical of many contemporary composers among whom he can be seen in retrospect to have been supreme. The outstanding attribute which earned him supremacy was spontaneous versatility of melodic invention. ‘For unto us’, let us remember, was followed by ‘Rejoice greatly’, ‘He shall feed His flock’, ‘Why do the nations’ and ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’; therein lay an infinite variety of richness. Nor do some of Handel’s other oratorios and cantatas deserve the comparative neglect which has overtaken them. Most of my readers will have had the pleasure, some time, of hearing ‘Love in her eyes sits playing’, ‘Let the bright Seraphim’, ‘Where e’er you walk’ and ‘Angels ever bright and fair’ - but probably out of their context; few may realize that that they belong respectively to Acis and Galatea, Samson, Semele and Theodora - although the two last-named (as recorded on page 30) have recently been played on the stage.

Handel’s personal character was not untouched by the coarseness of the age in which he lived but he was generous as well as self-indulgent and too sincere, perhaps too obstinate, ever to make a thoroughgoing success of the flair for worldly opportunism with which he is sometimes credited. In any case there was no such element in his approach to his art, which was splendidly and consistently uncoarse. Inevitably inspiration ebbed and flowed, but for so prolific a composer the pages of tedium or triviality were comparatively rare. He occasionally played down to his public (‘See the conquering hero comes’ from Judas Maccabeus might almost be called a pot-boiler), but his music was rarely unworthy of a reputation which over the centuries has suffered very few ups and downs as generation has succeeded generation, each in turn bringing changes of taste and outlook. Englishmen, at any rate, have never swerved from allegiance to their adopted countryman George Frideric Handel and have always regarded him as an outstanding figure in the history of music. How right they have been!

Extract from 'Famous Composers' by Gervase Hughes (1961) courtesy of the publisher.