Thursday, 1 December 2011

George Frideric Handel – An Introduction

The following is a draft entry for The Literary Encyclopedia Online (the entry was published online in December, 2011)

George Frideric Handel (originally Georg Friedrich Händel), middle-class son of a successful barber-surgeon, was born on 23rd February, 1685, in Halle (in Saxony), less than one month before and eighty miles away from Johann Sebastian Bach.  Remarkably, the two never met.  Whereas Bach was to stay in his own country, Handel’s career was international, taking him to and from Germany, Italy and England before he finally settled in London.  The scope and extent of his achievements are remarkable.  He composed over forty Italian operas; over twenty English oratorios and dramas; numerous concertos; an enormous range of church music; over one hundred cantatas; a mass of orchestral music; and hundreds of sonatas and airs.  A brutally selective list of masterpieces would have to include the operas Radamisto, Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano, Rodelinda, and  Ariodante; the oratorios Saul, Messiah, Solomon and Jephtha; the musical dramas Acis and Galatea and Semele; the four anthems for the coronation of George II (including “Zadok the Priest”); the opus 7 organ concertos; and the Water Music and Fireworks Music.

After his apprenticeship and experience as church organist, orchestra violinist and harpsichordist, the culmination of Handel’s early career in Germany was the production of his first opera (in German) Almira, at the Hamburg Opera House in 1705.  But it was a long tour of Italy (1706-10) that was to shape the rest of Handel’s musical life, producing his first two Italian operas, Rodrigo (first performed in Florence, 1707), and Agrippina (first performed, to sensational acclaim, in Venice, 1709).

To many, Handel is still primarily known as a master of oratorios and orchestral suites.  The Messiah, the Water Music, and the Fireworks Music have particularly captured the imagination since their first performances.  Of the Water Music, The Daily Courant for 19th July, 1717 wrote:


On Wednesday Evening […] the King took Water at Whitehall in an open Barge. […].  Many other Barges with Persons of Quality attended, and so great a Number of Boats, that the whole River in a manner was cover’d; a City Company’s Barge was employ’d for the Musick, wherein were 50 Instruments of all sorts, who play’d all the Way from Lambeth […] the finest Symphonies, compos’d express for this Occasion, by Mr. Hendel. (Deutsch, 76)


According to Handel’s first biographer, John Mainwaring, this was the occasion of a famous reconciliation between the King and the composer (actually, such performances had become a custom, and Handel’s participation may rather have allowed King George a public excuse for extending his previous patronage (as Elector of Hanover).

Even the rehearsal for the Fireworks Music was spectacular: “according to The Gentlemen’s Magazine, there were 100 performers, and an audience of more than 12,000 (at 2s 6d per ticket) attended – a turn out that caused a three-hour traffic jam on London Bridge” (Burrows, 298).

Of The Messiah it is sometimes said that the speed of composition (twenty-four days in August-September 1741) proved Handel’s sense of divine inspiration.  If so, then Handel’s God was both unprejudiced (as to subject) and abundant in his favours, as there were many other periods of intensive creativity.  In 1724-5, for example, Handel produced three operatic masterpieces – Giulio Cesare in Egitto; Tamerlano; and Rodelinda, regina de’ Langobardi, as well as a series of sonatas and a successful pasticcio opera.

Despite the fame of his orchestral music and oratorios, Handel’s main commitment was always to Italian opera, an obsession that was to make London the music capital of the world in the first half of the eighteenth century.  It was the opportunity to produce operas at the Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket (after Queen Anne’s death and the accession of George I, known as the King’s Theatre) that first drew Handel to London late in 1710.

The English literary scene was never happy about the rise of Italian opera.  Before Handel’s contribution, in 1706 John Dennis had launched a ludicrous and xenophobic attack. Italian opera was: “a Diversion of more pernicious consequence, than the most licentious Play that ever has appear’d upon the Stage”.  Its pleasures were too great, offering, particularly, a threat to all young ladies.  French music was less dangerous as it was “by no means so meltingly moving as the Italian”.  Italian opera was emasculating and foreign: “the Reigning Luxury of Modern Italy, is that soft and effeminate Musick which abounds in the Italian Opera” (Dennis, 4-7).  Nobody despised John Dennis more than Alexander Pope, but in their view of opera they broadly agreed.  By 1742, after Handel had produced his last Italian opera in London, Pope could still characterize the genre as a strumpet with “foreign air”: “A Harlot form soft sliding by, / With mincing step, small voice, and languid eye” (Pope, Dunciad, 345).

This literary assault was evident at the outset of Handel’s London career.  His first London opera, Rinaldo (1711), met with a mocking critique from the Spectator, which ridiculed the taste of opera audiences as trivial and laughable.  With Rinaldo, as with the later Teseo (1713) and Amadigi (1715), Handel’s other “magic operas” (so called because they all have a sorceress who conjures up visions and monsters), audiences could enjoy state of the art special effects.  Rinaldo calls for two chariots, drawn by white horses, blackamoors, and dragons issuing fire and smoke; furies and monsters; a delightful grove with birds; singing and dancing mermaids; a dreadful mountain prospect; an enchanted palace; a magician’s cave; ugly spirits; and plentiful supplies of thunder, lightning and “amazing noises”.  Addison ridiculed the whole enterprise in the Spectator issue of March 6th.  Especially ludicrous to him seemed the provision of real birds for the delightful grove:


As I was walking in the Streets about a Fortnight ago, I saw an ordinary Fellow carrying a Cage full of little Birds upon his Shoulder […] Sparrows for the Opera, says his Friend, licking his Lips, what are they to be roasted?  No, no, says the other, they are to enter towards the end of the first Act, and to fly about the Stage. (The Spectator, I, 23-4)


For all Addison’s humour, his descriptions do suggest the excitement of these productions:  Rinaldo is filled with Thunder and Lightning, Illuminations, and Fireworks”.  Some proprietors of eighteenth-century taste may have scorned such entertainments, but the opera public loved them.  Rinaldo was a great success; the publication of its songs alone made their publisher fifteen hundred pounds.

After this initial venture, the most important development was the establishment of the Royal Academy of Music in 1719.  With the support of the King and the aristocracy, the right patronage was available for the most remarkable period in English opera history.  As Mainwaring notes:

A project was formed by the Nobility for erecting an academy at the Haymarket.  The intention of this musical Society, was to secure to themselves a constant supply of Operas to be composed by HANDEL, and performed under his direction. (Mainwaring, 96-97)

In an unprecedented expression of artistic venture capital (with little promise of return, considering the enormous cost of opera productions) £10,000 of stock in the new company was bought by an elite group of investors, the King allowing an annual £1,000 to support the scheme.  On February 21st the Original Weekly Journal announced that:


Mr. Hendel, a famous Master of Musick, is gone beyond Sea, by Order of his Majesty, to Collect a Company of the choicest Singers in Europe, for the Opera in the Hay-Market. (Deutsch, 86)

So exciting was the prospect that the journal had anticipated Handel’s departure by three months.  Italian opera was now a cosmopolitan enterprise and Handel went not to Italy but to Dresden where the Elector of Saxony had gathered one of the finest opera companies in Europe.  He returned, having secured the services of the famous soprano Margherita Durastanti and other signings soon followed.  But the Academy had to wait until the end of 1720 to secure its star attraction, the castrato Senesino, with an astonishing fee of £3,000.  Though he hadn’t yet arrived in London, the fervour of anticipation for Handel’s first Academy production was none the less for that.  The first night, on April 27th, according to Mainwaring, was one to remember:


In the year 1720, he obtained leave to perform his Opera of RADAMISTO. […]  In so splendid and fashionable an assembly of ladies (to the excellence of their taste we must impute it) there was no shadow of form, or ceremony, scarce indeed any appearance of order or regularity, politeness or decency.  Many, who had forc’d their way into the house with an impetuosity but ill suited to their rank and sex, actually fainted through the excessive heat and closeness of it.  Several gentlemen were turned back, who had offered forty shillings for a seat in the gallery, after having despaired of getting any in the pit or boxes. (Mainwaring, 98-99)


The opera was a magnificent début, revealing both a complete mastery of the high heroic mode of opera seria, and a profound capacity to move, as in the famous aria “Ombra cara”.

The opera stars of the day, not only the sensational castrati, but also the great Italian sopranos, were not easy to work with.  No sooner had the famous soprano Cuzzoni arrived in London than she began to establish her reputation for spoilt behaviour.  She refused, at rehearsal, to sing the beautiful aria “Falsa imagine” from Ottone (1723) that Handel had intended for her introduction, at which point, Handel apparently threatened to defenestrate her: “he took her up by the waist, and, if she made any more words, swore that he would fling her out of the window” (Mainwaring, 110-11).

When Cuzzoni was joined in London by her great rival, Faustina, Handel had to be very careful to allocate parts of an exactly equivalent length in Alessandro (1726), his first production for the two prima donnas, or Rival Queens as they came to be known.  But a year later, during a performance of Bononcini’s opera Astianatte, the rivalry came to a head:


On Tuesday-night last […] a great Disturbance happened at the Opera, occasioned by the Partisans of the Two Celebrated Rival Ladies […].   The Contention at first was only carried on by Hissing on one Side, and Clapping on the other; but proceeded at length to Catcalls, and other great Indecencies. (Deutsch, 210)


The two singers actually came to blows on stage.  Such behaviour was the perfect subject for satirists, and John Gay had great fun parodying the episode in The Beggar’s Opera (1728), in the rivalry between Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit (“Why how now, Madam Flirt? ... Why how now, saucy jade?” (Gay, 93)).

The first period of the Royal Academy came to an end in 1728-1729, but the enterprise was extended for a further five years (usually known as the “Second Academy”) and Handel continued to produce Italian operas.  He and his company were then forced out of the famous King’s Theatre by the Opera of the Nobility, a rival group also established to produce Italian operas, which had already signed a number of Handel’s celebrated singers.  Handel was not easily discouraged, though, and he moved to the brand new Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, and other new operas followed.  But by the late 1730’s the writing was on the wall for Italian opera seria in London.  It had been difficult for the capital to maintain the expense of one opera company, let alone two, and the clamour for works sung in English was becoming irresistible.  Handel began to move increasingly towards English oratorios.  Deidamia (performed in January 1741), was his last Italian opera, and later in the same year he composed the Messiah.

It is not an exaggeration to say that from the end of Handel’s career until the 1970s when there was a revival of interest in Baroque opera, Handel was most celebrated as the composer of English oratorios rather than Italian operas.  But the genius of his best oratorios shows him to be that master of musical drama he became by writing operas.  Those who wrote the best English libretti for Handel absolutely understood this essentially dramatic quality of his way with words.  Handel was clearly inspired, for instance, by Charles Jennens’ brilliant libretto for Saul (completed and first performed in 1738-9, when Handel was still writing opera).  Winton Dean notes that Jennens:


understood the nature of Handel’s genius a great deal better than his critics [...] giving him not a prize poem or a devotional cantata, still less a liturgical text, but a fully organised drama conceived in terms of the visual theatre [...] (Dean, 277)


A good example of Handel’s skills is the episode in Act I that culminates in Saul’s aria of jealous vengeance against David – “With rage I shall burst”.  The aria itself actually confirms the influence of opera material: it’s a borrowing from Handel’s own Agrippina of 1709.  In Saul it becomes the culmination of a compelling and intense series of events. The sequence starts with a symphony for carillon, a remarkable instrument that left Jennens dumbfounded:


Mr Handel’s head is more full of Maggots than ever.  I found yesterday in his room a very queer instrument which he calls carillon (Anglice a bell) and says some call it a Tubalcain, I suppose because it is both in the make and tone like a set of Hammers striking upon anvils.  ‘Tis play’d upon with Keys like a Harpsichord, and with this Cyclopean instrument he designs to make poor Saul stark mad. (Dean, 275)


Despite Jennens’ fears for Handel’s own sanity, it’s clear that even he imagines such an instrument might have the desired effect.  With the symphony come the daughters of the land, playing music, dancing and singing in celebration of the victory over the Philistines.  This narrative introduction is also accompanied by the carillon (its insistence already beginning to get to Saul, who knows that David is more fêted than himself).  The chorus welcomes the heroes, but, with unwise favouritism, names David first.  In the rise and fateful fall of an accompanied recitative, Saul interrupts the celebrations: “[has he] then sunk so low/ To have this upstart boy preferred to [him]”. Back comes the choir with more ecstatic and elaborate carillon to praise David’s “ten thousand” slain.  Saul can restrain himself no more, and his final interruption (“To him ten thousands and to me but thousand”) announces his raging aria.  The whole phase is a masterpiece of sustained musical drama.  From celebration to doom the music explains, with absolute conviction, Saul’s descent.  And the carillon has indeed helped drive him “stark mad”.

The relationship between composer and librettist should not be underestimated.  We are fortunate that Handel was able to work with as talented a writer as Jennens.  But others also deserve acknowledgement.  Thomas Morell’s libretto for Jephtha has been seen merely as a collection of quotations from an impressive range of poets (particularly Milton).  But Jephtha is an extremely knowing anthology, its literary allusions chosen to bring a thematic and artistic unity to the subject.  Handel, though he was in poor health, was certainly engaged by the text.  He had had to stop work on the piece, scribbling in the margin (in German): “got as far as this on [...] 13th February 1751, unable to go on owing to weakening of the sight of my left eye” (Deutsch, 701).   Handel’s response to illness was always proactive, but, despite dangerous and unpleasant surgery (involving the piercing of the cornea with a needle) and visits to spa waters, his sight was not fully to recover and he was to end his years in increasing blindness.

In these circumstances, the text of Jephtha must have had a special private significance for Handel, surely understood by his librettist.  How apt that Handel’s last major work, composed despite intermittent bouts of blindness, should have darkness as one of its central unifying motifs, in a system of images which finds its emotional climax in one of his greatest choruses – “How dark, O Lord, are thy Decrees”.  It was at exactly this point in the manuscript that Handel noted his worsening sight. .

The composer’s treatment of that great chorus shows that Handel, touched perhaps by the personal relevance of its message, and impressed by its sense of fatalism, could still conjure a profoundly moving and tragic utterance.  The crucial last line “Whatever is, is right” is from Pope’s Essay on Man (Pope, Essay, 51).  Originally, in fact, Morell had written “What God ordains is right” but Handel preferred a direct quotation and inserted his correction throughout the manuscript.  Though Pope was vindicating “the ways of God to Man” (Pope, Essay, 14), Handel created a dark and imposing expression of our helplessness before fate.

Handel’s librettists (Italian and English) all brought their own particular skills to bear on the creation of texts that interested and excited Handel.  Finally, though, it is Handel’s special ability to actualise the words on the page that really matters.  Whether in masterful single arias and choruses or in compelling sequences of musical action and reaction, it is Handel’s ability to bring scenes and episodes to dramatic life that makes him one of the greatest of all musical dramatists.


Works Cited

Bond, Donald F. (ed.) The Spectator, 5 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1965.

Burrows, Donald. Handel. Oxford: OUP. 1994.

Dean, Winton. Handel’s Dramatic Oratorios and Masques. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


Dennis, John. An Essay on the Opera's After the Italian Manner, Which are about to be     

Establish'd on the English Stage, With some Reflections on the Damage which

they may bring to the Publick. London: John Nutt. 1706.

Deutsch, Otto Erich. Handel: A Documentary Biography. London: Adam and Charles

            Black. 1955.

Gay, John. The Beggar's Opera, ed. Bryan Loughrey and T. O. Treadwell.

            Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1986.

Mainwaring, John. Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel. London: R.

            and J. Dodsley. 1760.

Pope, Alexander, The Dunciad, ed. James Sutherland. London: Methuen. 1965.

Pope, Alexander, An Essay on Man, ed. Maynard Mack. London: Methuen. 1970.




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