The most famous composer of Johann Sebastian Bach’s time was Georg Friedrich Handel.I He triumphed in Germany, he brought musical Italy to his feet, he was the life and history of music in England for the first half of the eighteenth century. He took his supremacy for granted, and no one questioned him. He bestrode the world of music like a commanding colossus, weighing 250 pounds.
He was born in Halle, Upper Saxony, February 23, 1685, just twenty-six days before Johann Sebastian Bach, and eight months before Domenico Scarlatti. But whereas Bach and Scarlatti were baptized in music, fathered by famous composers, and reared to an obbligato of scales, Handel was born to parents indifferent to tones. His father was official surgeon at the court of Duke Johann Adolf of Saxe-Weissenfels; his mother was the daughter of a Lutheran minister. They frowned upon the boy’s addiction to the organ and the harpsichord; but when the Duke, hearing him play, insisted that he should receive musical training, they allowed him to study with Friedrich Zachau, organist of the Liebfrauenkirche in Halle. Zachau was a devoted and painstaking teacher. By the age of eleven Georg was composing sonatas (six of these survive), and was so skilled an organist that Zachau and the resigned parents sent him to Berlin to perform before Sophia Charlotte, the cultured Electress of Brandenburg, soon to be queen of Prussia. When Georg returned to Halle (1697), he found that his father had just died. His mother survived till 1729.
In 1702 he entered the University of Halle, ostensibly to prepare for the practice of law. A month later the authorities at the Calvinist cathedral in Halle engaged him to replace their hard-drinking organist. After a year there the restless young genius, craving a wider sphere, pulled up all his Halle roots except his abiding love for his mother, and set out for Hamburg, where music was almost as popular as money. Hamburg had had an opera house since 1678. There Handel, aged eighteen, found a place as second violinist. He became friends with the twenty-two-year-old Johann Mattheson, the leading tenor at the opera and later the most famous musical critic of the eighteenth century. Together they made an expedition to Lübeck (August, 1703) to hear the aging Buxtehude play, and to explore the possibility of succeeding him as organist in the Marienkirche. They found that the successor must marry Buxtehude’s daughter. They looked and came away.
Their friendship collapsed in a duel as absurd as in any play. On October 20, 1704, Mattheson produced and starred in his own opera, Cleopatra. It was a decided success, and was often repeated. In these performances Handel conducted orchestra and singers from the harpsichord. On some occasions Mattheson, drunk with glory, came down from the stage after dying as Antony, displaced his friend as conductor and harpsichordist, and shared happily in the final applause. On December 5 Handel refused to be so replaced. The friends expanded the opera with a warm dispute, and after the stage performance was over they proceeded to the public square, drew their swords, and fought to the plaudits of opera patrons and passers-by. Mattheson’s weapon struck a metal button on Handel’s coat, buckled, and broke. The tragedy became a comedy to all but the principals; they nursed their grievances until the director of the company accepted Handel’s opera Almira, which required Mattheson in the tenor role. The success of the opera (January 8, 1705) made the enemies friends again.
Having forty-one arias in German and fifteen in Italian, Almira was so popular that it was repeated twenty times in seven weeks. Reinhard Keiser, who controlled the company and had composed most of its operas, turned jealous. The Hamburg opera declined in popularity, and for two years Handel lived at a reduced rate. Meanwhile Prince Giovan Gastone de’ Medici, passing through Hamburg, had advised him to go to Italy, where everyone was mad about music, and waiters warbled bel canto. With two hundred ducats in his wallet, and a letter from Gastone to his brother Ferdinand, patron of opera in Florence, Handel dared the snows of the Alps in December, and reached Florence toward the end of 1706. Finding Ferdinand’s pockets buttoned, he passed down to Rome. There, however, the opera house had been closed by Pope Innocent XII as a center of immorality. Handel played the organ in the Church of San Giovanni Laterano, and was acclaimed as a virtuoso; but as no one would produce his new opera, he returned to Florence. Gastone was now there, and pleaded for him; Ferdinand opened his purse, Rodrigo was staged; everyone was pleased; Ferdinand gave the young composer a hundred sequins ($300?) and a dinner service of porcelain. But Florence had no public opera house; Venice had sixteen. Handel went on to Venice.
It was the fall of 1707. The Queen of the Adriatic was under the spell of Alessandro Scarlatti, and was applauding his greatest opera, Mitridate Eupatore; there was no opening for a young German just beginning to learn the secrets of Italian melody. Handel studied Scarlatti’s operas, and found a good friend in Alessandro’s son. Story has it that when Handel, masked, played the harpsichord at a Venetian masquerade, Domenico Scarlatti exclaimed, “That is either the marvelous Saxon or the Devil.”42 The lasting friendship between the two greatest harpsichordists of the age is a moment of harmony amid the discords of history. Together they left Venice to older masters, and went off to Rome (January, 1708?).
This time Handel was better received. The news of Rodrigo had reached the capital; princes and cardinals opened their doors to him, more disturbed by his German accent than by his Lutheran faith. The Marchese di Ruspoli built a private theater in his palace to produce Handel’s first oratorio, La Risurrezione; the music was a revelation in its power, complexity, and depth; soon all cultural Rome was talking about “il gran Sassone” the tall and mighty Saxon. But his scores were more difficult than Italian performers liked. When Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni produced Handel’s Serenata the music troubled Arcangelo Corelli, who played first violin and conducted the orchestra; he murmured politely, “Caro Sassone, this music is in the French style, which I do not understand.”43Handel took the violin from Corelli’s hands and played with his usual dash. Corelli forgave him.
Naples remained to be conquered. An unreliable tradition describes Handel, Corelli, and both the Scarlattis as traveling to that city together (June, 1708). Another dubious story ascribes a love affair to Handel there; but cautious history regrettably admits that it has no sound evidence of any love affair anywhere in Handel’s life, except for his mother and music. It seems incredible that the man who could write such ardent arias had no flame of his own; perhaps expression dispersed its heat on the wings of song. So far as we know, the major event in this Neapolitan sojourn was Handel’s meeting with Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, Viceroy of Naples and scion of a rich Venetian family. He offered the composer the libretto of an opera on the old theme of Nero’s mother. In three weeks Handel completed the work. Grimani arranged for its performance in the theater of his family at Venice; Handel hurried thither with the score.
The première of Agrippina (December 26, 1709) was the most exhilarating triumph that Handel had yet experienced. The generous Italians were not jealous that a German had beaten them at their own game, showing them splendors of harmony, audacities of modulation, devices of technique seldom achieved even by their favorite, Alessandro Scarlatti; they cried out, “Viva il caro Sassone!”44 Part of the ovation went to the remarkable basso, Giuseppe Boschi, whose voice ranged smoothly over a gamut of twenty-nine notes.
Handel was now courted. Charles Montagu, Earl of Manchester, British ambassador at Venice, advised him to go to London; Prince Ernest Augustus, younger brother of Elector George Louis, offered him the post of Kapellmeister at Hanover. Venice was lovely, it breathed music, but how long could one eat out of one opera, and how long could you depend upon those temperamental Italians? At Hanover there would be fog and clouds and gutturals, but also a fine opera house, a steady salary, substantial German food; and he could ride off now and then to visit his mother at Halle. On June 15, 1710, age twenty-five, Handel was appointed Kapellmeister at Hanover, with an annual salary of fifteen hundred crowns, and permission for occasional absences. In the autumn of that year he asked and obtained permission to visit England, promising to return soon.
2. The Conquest of England
London opera was in trouble. An Italian company was singing there, with basso Boschi, his contralto wife, and male soprano Nicolini, whom Charles Burney, zealous historian of music, judged to be “the first truly great singer who has ever sung in our theater.”45But both the Haymarket opera house (then called Her Majesty’s Theatre) and the Drury Lane Theatre were in a rough section of the city, where pockets were picked and heads were broken; “society” hesitated to risk its wigs and purses there.
Hearing that Handel was in London, Aaron Hill, impresario, offered him a libretto drawn from Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata. Handel set to work with his massive energy, borrowed freely from his own compositions, and in a fortnight completedRinaldo.Produced on February 24, 1711, it was repeated fourteen times to full houses before the end of the season on June 22. Addison and Steele attacked it, but London took to it, and sang its arias in the streets; two especially, “Lascia ch’io pianga” and “Cara sposa,” touched sentimental chords, and can move us even today. John Walsh made fourteen hundred guineas by publishing the songs from Rinaldo; Handel wryly suggested that for the next opera Walsh should write the music and let him publish the score.46Soon this best of Handel’s operas was produced in Dublin, Hamburg, and Naples. In London it held the stage for twenty years.
Sipping his success, Handel stretched his leave of absence to a year; then, reluctantly, he returned to Hanover (June, 1711). There he was not a lion in drawing rooms but a servant in the Elector’s palace; the opera house was closed for the season; he composedconcerti grossi and cantatas while his imagination soared in operas. In October, 1712, he asked leave for another “short” visit to England. The Elector indulged him, perhaps feeling that England was soon to be a Hanoverian appanage in any case. Handel reached London in November, and stayed forty-six years.
He brought with him a new opera, Il Pastor Fido (The Faithful Shepherd), whose pleasant overture still charms our air. It was produced on November 22, and failed. Stimulated rather than disheartened, he began at once on another theme, Teseo (Theseus). The première (January 10, 1713) was a triumph, but after the second night the manager absconded with the box office receipts. Another manager, John Heidegger, took over, carried Teseo to thirteen performances, and rewarded the unpaid composer by arranging a benefit for “Mr. Hendel,” with the composer starring at the harpsichord. The Earl of Burlington, an enthusiastic auditor, invited Handel to make Burlington House his home; Handel accepted, was well lodged and too well fed, and met Pope, Gay, Kent, and other leaders in literature and art.
Good fortune crowded upon him. Queen Anne had longed for an end to the War of the Spanish Succession; it came with the Treaty of Utrecht; Handel pleased Anne with his “Utrecht Te Deum,” and with a “Birthday Ode” for her anniversary; in these he showed that he had studied Purcell’s choruses. The kindly Queen rewarded him with a pension of two hundred pounds. Comfortable and prosperous, he rested on his oars for a truant year.
On August 1, 1714, Anne died, and Elector George Louis of Hanover became George I of England. Handel looked with some apprehension upon this turn of events; he had in effect deserted Hanover, and might expect the royal shoulder to be cold. It was, but George held his peace. The Hay-market house was now renamed His Majesty’s Theatre; the King felt obliged to patronize it; but it was playing the truant’s Rinaldo. He went in disguise except for his accent, and enjoyed the performance. Meanwhile Handel had written another opera, Amadigi di Gaula; Heidegger produced it on May 25, 1715; George liked it. Soon thereafter the Italian violinist and composer Francesco Geminiani, being invited to perform at court, asked for Handel as the only harpsichordist in England who could fitly accompany him. He had his way; Handel outdid himself; the King forgave him, and raised his pension to four hundred pounds a year. Princess Caroline engaged him to teach her daughters, and added a pension of two hundred pounds. He was now the best-paid composer in Europe.
When George I left London (July 9, 1716) for a visit to Hanover he took Handel with him. The musician visited his mother at Halle, and began his periodic gifts of money to the impoverished widow of his old teacher Zachau. King and composer returned to London early in 1717. James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon—later, Duke of Chandos—invited Handel to live at his sumptuous palace, Canons, in Middlesex, and to replace as its music master Dr. Johann Pepusch, who took delayed revenge by writing the music forThe Beggar’s Opera. There Handel composed Suites de Pièces pour le Clavecin— harpsichord fantasies in the style of Domenico Scarlatti and Couperin—some concerti grossi, twelve “Chandos Anthems,” music for Gay’s masque Acis and Galatea, and an opera,Radamisto.
But who would produce the opera? Attendance at His Majesty’s Theatre had fallen off; Heidegger was nearing bankruptcy. To rescue him and opera a group of nobles and rich commoners formed (February, 1719) the Royal Academy of Music, financing it with fifty shares offered to the public at two hundred pounds each; George I took five shares. On February 21 a London weekly announced that “Mr. Hendel, a famous Master of Music, is gone beyond the sea, by order of His Majesty, to collect a company of the choicest singers in Europe for the Opera in the Haymarket.”47 Handel raided various companies in Germany, and visited his mother again. A few hours after he left Halle for England, Johann Sebastian Bach appeared in the town, having walked some twenty-five miles from Cöthen, and asked if he might see the great German who had conquered England. It was too late; the two masters never met.
On April 27, 1720, Radamisto was performed before the King, his mistress, and a house brilliant with titles and jewelry; pedigreed persons fought for admission; “several gentlemen,” Mainwaring reported, “were turned back who had offered forty shillings for a seat in the gallery.”48 The English audience rivaled in its applause the Venetians who had acclaimed Agrippina eleven years before. Handel was again the hero of London.
Not quite. A rival group of music lovers, led by Handel’s former patron the Earl of Burlington, preferred Giovanni Battista Bononcini. They persuaded the Royal Academy of Music to open its second season with Bononcini’s opera Astarto (November 19, 1720); they secured for its leading role a male soprano now more adored than Nicolini; this “Senesino” (Francesco Bernardi), offensive in manners, captivating in voice, carried Astarto to triumph and a run of ten performances; Bononcini’s admirers hailed him as superior to Handel. Neither composer was responsible for the war that now divided London’s operatic public into hostile groups, but London, in this year of the bursting South Sea Bubble, was as excitable as Paris. The King and the Whigs favored Handel, the Prince of Wales and the Tories played up Bononcini, and the wits and pamphleteers crowded to the fray. Bononcini seemed to certify his supremacy with a new opera, Crispo (January, 1722), which was so successful that the Academy followed it with another Bononcini triumph, Griselda. When the great Marlborough died (June), Bononcini, not Handel, was chosen to compose the funeral anthem; and the Duke’s daughter settled upon the Italian an annuity of five hundred pounds a year. It was Bononcini’s year.
Handel fought back with Ottone, and a new soprano whom he lured from Italy by an unprecedented guarantee of two thousand pounds. Francesca Cuzzoni, as Horace Walpole saw her, “was short and squat, with a doughy cross face but fine complexion; was not a good actress; dressed ill; and was silly and fantastical”;49 but she warbled ravishingly. A contest of wills and tempers enlivened her rehearsals. “Madame,” Handel told her, “I well know that you are a veritable female devil; but I myself, I will have you know, am Beelzebub, chief of the devils.” When she insisted on singing an aria contrary to his instructions, he took hold of her and threatened to throw her out the window.50 As the two thousand pounds would have followed her, she yielded. In the première (January 12, 1723) she sang so well that one enthusiast cried out from the gallery in mediis rebus, “Damme, she has a nest of nightingales in her belly.”51 Senesino rivaled her, and Boschi’s basso helped. On the second night seats sold for five pounds more. About this time John Gay wrote to Jonathan Swift:
As for the reigning amusement of the town, it is entirely music; real fiddles, bass viols, and hautboys; not poetical harps, lyres, and reeds. There’s nobody allowed to say I sing but an eunuch, or an Italian woman. Everybody now is grown as great a judge of music as they were, in your time, of poetry; and folks that could not distinguish one tone from another now daily dispute about the different styles of Handel, Bononcini, and Attilio [Ariosti].… In London and Westminster, in all polite conversation, Senesino is daily voted the greatest man that ever lived.52
Again in excelsis, Handel bought a house in London (1723) and became a British citizen (1727). He continued till 1728 the operatic war. He combed history for subjects, and put Flavius, Caesar, Tamerlane, Scipio, Alexander, and Richard I on the stage; Bononcini countered with Astyanax, Erminia, Pharnaces, and Calpurnia; a third composer, Ariosti, set Coriolanus, Vespasian, Artaxerxes, and Darius to music; never had history been so harmonious. In 1726 the triune conflict took on added fire with the arrival of Faustina Bordoni, a mezzo-soprano who had already overcome Venice, Naples, and Vienna. She had not the tender and dulcet tones of Cuzzoni, but her voice was seconded by her face, her figure, and her grace. In Alessandro (May 5, 1726) Handel brought the two divas together, gave them the same number of solos, and carefully balanced them in a duet. For some evenings the audience applauded them both; then it divided; one part hissed while the other applauded; a new dimension was added to the tuneful war. On June 6, 1727, when the rival prime donne sang in Bononcini’s Astianatte, the supporters of Cuzzoni broke out in a disgraceful pandemonium of hisses, boos, and roars when Bordoni tried to sing. A fight flared up in the pit and spread to the stage; the divas joined in it and tore at each other’s hair; spectators joyfully smashed the scenery—all in the presence of the humiliated Caroline, Princess of Wales.
This reductio ad absurdum might of itself have killed Italian opera in England. The coup de grâce was struck by one of the gentlest spirits in London. On January 29, 1728, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, John Gay presented The Beggar’s Opera. We have described its jolly, witty, ribald lyrics, but only those who have heard them sung to the music that Johann Pepusch composed or borrowed for them can understand why the theatergoing public turned almost en masse from Handel, Bononcini, and Ariosti to Pepusch, Polly, and Gay. Night after night for nine weeks The Beggar’s Opera played to full houses, while the sirens and eunuchs at His Majesty’s Theatre sang to empty seats. Moreover, Gay had satirized Italian opera; he had made fun of the silly plots, the coloratura trills and ornaments of sopranos of either sex; he had taken thieves, beggars, and prostitutes as his dramatis personae instead of kings, nobles, virgins, and queens; and he offered English ballads as better songs than Italian arias. The public was delighted with words that it could understand, especially if the words were a bit risqué. Handel came back with more operas—Siroe and Tolomeo, Re (d’Egitto (1728); they had fine moments but paid no bills. On June 5 the Royal Academy of Music declared bankruptcy and expired.
Handel did not admit defeat. Deserted by the nobles, who blamed him for their losses, he formed with Heidegger (June, 1728) the “New Academy of Music,” put into it ten thousand pounds—nearly all his savings—and received from the new King, George II, a pledge of a thousand a year in support. In February he set out on another Continental tour to recruit new talent, for Cuzzoni, Bordoni, Senesino, Nicolini, and Boschi had deserted his sinking ship and were trilling Venice. In their place Handel engaged new chanticleers and nightingales: Antonio Bernacchi, a male soprano, Annibale Fabri, tenor, Anna Maria Strada del Pò, soprano. On his way back he stopped to see his mother for the last time. She was now seventy-nine, blind and almost paralyzed. While he was in Halle he was visited by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, who brought him an invitation to visit Leipzig, where the Passion according to St. Matthew had just received its first performance. Handel had to refuse. He had barely heard of Johann Sebastian Bach, and never dreamed that this man’s fame would one day eclipse his own. He hurried back to London, picking up on the way the Hamburg basso Johann Riemenschneider.
The new cast appeared in Lotario on December 2, 1729, without success. He tried again on February 24 with Partenope, without success. Bernacchi and Riemenschneider were restored to the Continent; Senesino was recalled from Italy; with him and Strada del Pò, and a libretto by Metastasio, Handel’s Poro— on which he had lavished some of his most moving arias—caught the ear of London (February 2, 1731). His Majesty’s Theatre filled again. Two further operas, Ezio and Sosarme, were favorably received.
But the struggle to keep an English audience with Italian opera was becoming ever more arduous; it appeared now to be a blind alley, in which physical and financial exhaustion was always around the corner. Handel had conquered England, but now England was apparently conquering him. His operas were too much alike, and were bound to wear thin. They were exalted by magnificent arias; but these were only tenuously related to the plot, they were in an unintelligible, however mellifluous, language, and many of them were composed for male sopranos, who were increasingly hard to find. Rigid rules and artistic jealousy governed the distribution of arias, and added to the artificiality of the tale. If Handel had continued on this Italian line he would hardly be remembered today. A series of accidents jolted him off his beaten track, and turned him into the field where he was to remain, even to our time, unsurpassed.
On February 23, 1732, at the Crown and Anchor Tavern, Bernard Gates, to celebrate the composer’s forty-seventh birthday, gave a private production of Handel’s Esther, an Oratorio. It drew so profitable an audience that Gates repeated it twice—once for a private group, then (April 20) for the public; this was the first public performance of an oratorio in England. Princess Anne suggested that Esther should be presented at His Majesty’s Theatre with costumes, scenery, and action; but the bishop of London protested against turning the Bible into opera. Handel made now one of the pivotal decisions of his career. He announced that he would produce The Sacred Story of Esther as “an Oratorio in English” at the Haymarket theater on May 2, but added that there would be “no action on the stage,” and that the music was “to be disposed after the Manner of the Coronation Service”; so he distinguished oratorio from opera. He provided his own chorus and orchestra, and taught La Strada and other Italians to sing their solos in English. The royal family attended, and Esther bore five repetitions in its first month.
Another oratorio, Acts and Galatea (June 10), failed to please, and Handel turned back to opera. Orlando (January 27, 1733) had a good run; even so, the partnership with Heidegger faced bankruptcy. When Handel produced his third oratorio, Deborah (March 17), he tried to regain solvency by doubling the price of admission; an anonymous letter to The Craftsman denounced this measure, and called for a revolt against the domination of London’s music by the “insolent, … imperious, and extravagant Mr. Hendel.”53As Handel had won the patronage of the King, he automatically lost the good will of Frederick, Prince of Wales, son and foe of George II. Handel, whose manners often yielded to his temper, made the mistake of offending Frederick’s drawing master, Joseph Goupy; Goupy took revenge by drawing a caricature of the composer as a monstrous glutton with the snout of a boar; copies of this were circulated through London, and added to Handel’s misery. In the spring of 1733 the Prince of Wales encouraged his courtiers to form a rival company, the “Opera of the Nobility.” It brought from Naples the most famous singing teacher of the age, Niccolò Porpora; lured Senesino from Handel and Cuzzoni from Italy; and on December 29, at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, it produced Porpora’sArianna with great acclaim. Handel met this new challenge with an opera on a defiantly similar theme, Arianna in Creta January 26, 1734); it too was well received. But at the end of the season his contract with Heidegger expired; Heidegger leased His Majesty’s Theatre to the Opera of the Nobility; and Handel moved his company to John Rich’s Covent Garden Theatre.
Porpora scored by calling upon the world’s most renowned castrato, Carlo Broschi, known to all Europe as “Farinelli.” On this man’s singing we may dilate when we meet him in his native Bologna; here it need hardly be said that when (October 29) he joined Senesino and Cuzzoni in Porpora’s Artaserse it was an event in the music history of England; the opera was repeated forty times during Farinelli’s three-year stay. To compete with it Handel offered Ariodante (January 8, 1735), one of his finest operas, uniquely rich in its instrumental music; it earned ten performances in two months, and promised to make ends meet. But when Porpora produced Polifemo (February 1) with Farinelli in the leading role, the King, the Queen, and the court could not stay away; its run exceeded that of Artaserse, while Handel’s Alcina (April 16) was soon playing to empty seats—though a suite from its score still appears on programs today. For half a year Handel retired from the battlefield to nurse his rheumatic pains with the waters of Tunbridge Wells.
On February 19, 1736, he returned to Covent Garden with an oratorio set to Dryden’s “Alexander’s Feast.” A contemporary reported that the capacity audience of thirteen hundred received the oratorio with applause “such as had seldom been heard in London”;54Handel was comforted with receipts of £450; but though he gave a stirring organ recital in the intermission the ode was too slight to bear more than four repetitions; and the desperate composer-impresario-conductor-virtuoso turned again to opera. On May 12 he offered Atalanta as a pastoral play celebrating the marriage of the Prince of Wales. He had summoned from Italy a new castrato, Gizziello (Gioacchino Conti), for the soprano role, and had distinguished the part with an aria, “Care selve,” which is one of the most lovely and enduring of his songs. Frederick was so pleased that he transferred his patronage from Porpora’s company to Handel’s; but this victory was made sorrowful when the King, hearing of his son’s move, canceled his annual subscription of a thousand pounds to Handel’s enterprise.
Porpora gave up the battle in the spring of 1736. Handel filled his theater by alternating operas with oratorios, and adding to the cast of Giustino (February 16, 1737) “bears, fantastic animals, and dragons vomiting fire.”55 But the strain of his diverse responsibilities broke him down. In April he suffered a nervous collapse, and a stroke that for a time paralyzed, his right arm. On May 18 he staged Berenice, the last of the operas that he wrote for his company. He closed his theater on June 1, owing many debts, and vowing to pay them all in full; he did. Ten days later the rival Opera of the Nobility disbanded, owing twelve thousand pounds. The great age of opera in England was over.
Handel’s health was among the ruins. Rheumatism in his muscles, arthritis in his bones, gout in his extremities were capped in the summer of 1737 with a passing attack of insanity.56 He left England to take the waters at Aachen. There, reported Sir John Hawkins,
he submitted to such sweats, excited by the vapor baths, as astonished everyone. After a few essays of this kind, during which spirits seemed to rise rather than sink under an excessive perspiration, his disorder left him; and a few hours after … he went to the great church of the city, and got to the organ, on which he played in such a manner that men imputed his cure to a miracle.57
In November he returned to London, to solvency and honors. Heidegger had again engaged His Majesty’s Theatre. He paid Handel a thousand pounds for two new operas; one of them, Serse (April 15, 1738) contained the famous “Largo,” “Ombra mai fù.” The lessee of Vauxhall Gardens paid Roubillac three hundred pounds for a statue showing the composer strumming a lyre; on May 2 this figure, ungainly in pose and stupid in expression, was unveiled in the Gardens with a musical entertainment. More pleasing to Handel must have been the benefit tendered him on March 28, bringing over a thousand pounds in receipts. Handel now paid off the more urgent of his creditors, one of whom was threatening to put him in the debtors’ jail. Despite all honors, he was near the end of his financial rope. He could no longer look to Heidegger, who announced (May 24) that he had not received sufficient subscriptions to warrant his producing operas in 17 38–39. Without a commission and without a company, Handel, aged fifty-three and shaken with ailments, entered upon his greatest period.
4. The Oratorios
This relatively modern form had grown out of medieval chorales representing events in Biblical history or the lives of the saints. St. Philip Neri had given the form its name by favoring it as a means of devotion and religious instruction in the oratorio, or prayer chapel, of the Fathers of the Oratory in Rome. Giacomo Carissimi and his pupil Alessandro Scarlatti developed the oratorio in Italy; Heinrich Schütz brought it from Italy into Germany; Reinhard Keiser raised the genre to high excellence before his death (1739). This was the heritage that in 1741 culminated in Handel’s Messiah.
Part of Handel’s success came from his adaptation of the form to English taste. He continued to choose the subjects of his oratorios from the Bible, but he gave them, now and then, a secular interest, as with the love theme in Joseph and His Brethren and inJephtha; he emphasized the dramatic rather than the religious character, as in Saul and Israel in Egypt; and he used an entirely English text, only partly Biblical. It was in good part religious music, but it was independent of churches and liturgy; it was performed on a stage under secular auspices. Moreover, Handel used Biblical themes to symbolize English history: “Israel” stood for England; the Great Rebellion of 1642 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 could be heard in the struggle of the Jews for liberation from Egyptian (Stuart) bondage and Hellenistic (Gallic) domination; the Chosen People was really the English nation, and the God of Israel was the same who had led the English people through trial to victory. Like the Puritans, Handel thought of God as the mighty Jehovah of the Old Testament, not as the forgiving Father of the New.58 England felt this, and responded proudly to Handel’s oratorios.
The ascent to the Messiah began with Saul, produced at His Majesty’s Theatre January 16, 1739. “The solemn and majestic Dead March would alone immortalize this work.”59 But the audience was not accustomed to the oratorio form; Saul could sustain only six performances. With unbelievable energy Handel composed and presented (April 4) another masterwork, Israel in Egypt. Here he made the chorus the hero, the voice of a nation in birth, and wrote what many consider his supreme music.60 It proved too vast and heavy for the current appetite, and Handel finished this historic season with new debts.
On October 23, 1739, England plunged into war with Spain for Jenkins’ ear. Amid the turmoil Handel hired a small theater, and on the feast of the patron saint of musicians he offered his setting of Dryden’s “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day” (November 22, 1739). Even in the cold and chaos of that wintry night London could not resist the bright melodious overture, the ethereal soprano aria in the third stanza, or the “soft complaining flute” and “warbling lute” in the fifth; while the “double double double beat of the thund’ring drum” accorded with the spirit of war that was rumbling through the streets. Handel took heart again, and tried an opera, Imeneo (1740), which failed; he tried another, Deidamia (1741); it too failed; and the tired giant retired for almost two years from the London musical scene.
These two years were his finest. On August 22, 1741, he began to compose the Messiah. The text was adapted by Charles Jennens from the books of Job, Psalms, Isaiah, Lamentations, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi in the Old Testament, and, in the New, the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John, the Epistles of Paul, and the Book of Revelation. The score was completed in twenty-three days; in some of these, he told a friend, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.”61 Having no early prospect of finding an audience for it, he went on to write another major oratorio, Samson, based on the Samson Agonistes of Milton. At an unknown date during these ecstasies he received an invitation to present some of his works in Dublin. The proposal seemed to come from an appreciative Providence; actually it came from William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.
He reached Dublin November 17, 1741. He engaged the best singers he could find, including Susannah Maria Cibber, the accomplished daughter of Thomas Arne. Several charitable organizations arranged six concerts for him; these were so successful that a second series was presented. On March 27, 1742, two Dublin periodicals carried an announcement that
for the relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the support of Mercer’s Hospital, … on Monday the 12th of April, will be performed, at the Musick Hall in Fishamble-street, Mr. Hendel’s new Grand Oratorio, called the Messiah, in which the Gentlemen of the Choir of both cathedrals will assist, with some Concertos on the Organ by Mr. Hendel.62
Tickets were sold also for the rehearsal on April 8, which Faulkner’s Journal reported as “performed so well that it … was allowed by the greatest Judges to be the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard.” To this was added a notice postponing the Monday performance to Tuesday, and requesting the ladies “please to come without Hoops, as it will greatly increase the Charity, by making room for more Company.” A later item requested the men to come without their swords. In these ways the seating capacity of the Music Hall was raised from six hundred to seven hundred seats.
At last, on April 13, 1742, the most famous of all major musical compositions was presented. On April 17 three Dublin papers carried an identical review:
On Tuesday last Mr. Hendel’s Sacred Grand Oratorio, the Messiah, was performed.… The best Judges allowed it to be the most finished piece of musick. Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crowded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestic and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear. It is but justice to Mr. Hendel that the world should know he generously gave the money arising from this Grand Performance to be equally shared by the Society of relieving Prisoners, the Charitable Infirmary, and Mercer’s Hospital, for which they will ever gratefully remember his Name.63
The Messiah was repeated in Dublin on June 3. It has been repeated a thousand times since; yet who has yet grown weary of those muted or majestic arias, with their subdued and gracious accompaniments—“He Shall Feed His Flock,” “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth,” “He Shall Be Exalted,” “He Was Despised and Rejected”? When, at the Dublin première, Mrs. Cibber sang this last air, an Anglican clergyman cried out from the audience, “Woman, for this thy sins be forgiven thee!” All the depth and fervor of religious hope, all the tenderness of pious song, all the art and feeling of the composer came together to make these arias the supreme moments in modern music.
On August 13, replenished in spirit and purse, Handel left Dublin, resolved to conquer England again. He must have been comforted to find that Pope, in the fourth book of The Dunciad (1742), had gone out of his way to praise him:
Strong in new arms, lo! giant Handel stands,
Like bold Briareus, with a hundred hands [the orchestra]:
To stir, to rouse, to shake the soul he comes,
And Jove’s own thunders follow Mars’s drums.
So on February 18, 1743, at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, the rejuvenated composer presented his oratorio Samson. George II led London’s elite to the première; the lovely overture pleased everyone but Horace Walpole, who was resolved nil admirari;the noble aria “O God of Hosts” was almost of Messiahnic splendor; Samson, like Samson, “brought down the house.” But when, a month later (March 23), the Messiah itself was offered to London even the King, who then established a lasting custom by rising to his feet at the Hallelujah Chorus, could not lift the oratorio to acceptance. The clergy condemned the use of a theater for religious music; the nobility, still smarting from the failure of their opera company, stayed away. The Messiah was offered only three times in the next two years, then not again till 1749. In that year Handel, who was a philanthropist between bankruptcies, presented a handsome organ to the foundlings’ hospital so dear to his friend Hogarth; and on May 1, 1750, he gave the first of many annual performances of the Messiah for the benefit of those lucky unfortunates.
On June 27, 1743, George II led his army to victory at Dettingen. When he returned to London the city greeted him with parades, illuminations, and music, and the Chapel Royal in the Palace of St. James resounded with the “Dettingen Te Deum” that Handel had composed for the occasion (November 27). It was a product of genius and scissors, for it contained passages pilfered from earlier and minor composers; but it was a miracle of agglutination. The King was pleased.
Encouraged by royal smiles, Handel renewed his efforts to recapture the ear of London. On February 10, 1744, he presented another oratorio, Semele. It contained the exquisite song “Where’er You Walk,” which England and America still sing, but it could not exceed four performances. The nobles remained hostile; many titled ladies made a point of entertaining lavishly on the evenings scheduled for a concert by Handel; rowdies were hired to tear down his advertisements. On April 23, 1745, he canceled the eight concerts that he had announced; he closed his theater, and retired to Tunbridge Wells. Rumor had it that he was insane. “Poor Hendel,” wrote the current Earl of Shaftesbury (October 24), “looks a little better. I hope he will recover completely, though his mind has been entirely deranged.”64
The rumor may have erred, for Handel, now sixty years old, responded with all his powers to an invitation from the Prince of Wales to commemorate the victory of the Prince’s younger brother, the Duke of Cumberland, over the Stuart forces at Culloden. Handel took as a symbolic subject Judas Maccabaeus’ triumph (166–161 B.C.) over the Hellenizing schemes of Antiochus IV. The new oratorio was so well received (April 1, 1747) that it bore five repetitions in its first season. The Jews of London, grateful to see one of their national heroes so nobly celebrated, helped to swell the attendance, enabling Handel to present the oratorio forty times before his death. Grateful for this new support, he took most of his oratorio subjects henceforth from Jewish legend or history: Alexander Balus, Joshua, Susanna, Solomon, Jephtha. By contrast Theodora, a Christian theme, drew so small an audience that Handel ruefully remarked, “There was room enough to dance.” Chesterfield left before the conclusion, excusing himself on the ground that he “did not wish to disturb the King in his privacy.”65
The oratorios are but one species of the genus Handel. His polymorphous spirit turned with almost spontaneous accord to any of a dozen musical forms. Songs that still touch the chords of sentiment, keyboard pieces of exquisite delicacy, sonatas, suites, quartets, concertos, operas, oratorios, ballet music, odes, pastorals, cantatas, hymns, anthems, Te Deums, Passions—almost everything but the nascent symphony is there, rivaling the profuse immensity of Beethoven or Bach. The Suites de Pièces pour le Clavecin sound today, on the harpsichord, like the voices of happy children still unacquainted with history. A second set of suites began with that prelude which Brahms frolicked with in “Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel.”
Just as he had taken the oratorio from Carissimi and Keiser and brought it to its peak, so Handel took from Torelli and Corelli the concerto grosso—for two or more solo or duo instruments with a chamber orchestra. In Opus 6 he left twelve such concerti grossi,pitting two violins and a violoncello against an ensemble of strings; some of them strike us as monotonous today, some come close to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. There are also, in Handel, delightful concertos for a single solo instrument—harpsichord, organ, violin, viola, oboe, or harp. Those for keyboards were performed by Handel himself in preludes or interludes. Sometimes he left place in the concerto scores for what we should now call a cadenza, wherein the performer could free his imagination and display his skill. Handel’s improvisations in such openings were the wonder of many days.
In July, 1717, George I arranged a royal “progress” in decorated barges on the Thames. The Daily Courant of July 19, 1717, reveals the scene:
On Wednesday evening at about eight the King took water at Whitehall in an open barge, wherein were also the Duchess of Newcastle, the Countess of Godolphin, Madam Kilmanseck, and the Earl of Orkney, and went up the river towards Chelsea. Many other barges with persons of quality attended, and so great a number of boats that the whole river in a manner was covered. A city company’s barge was employed for the music, wherein were fifty instruments of all sorts, who played all the way from Lambeth … the finest symphonies, composed express for the occasion by Mr. Hendel, which his Majesty liked so well that he caused it to be played over three times in going and returning.66
This is the Water Music that is today the hardiest and most pleasant survivor of Handel’s instrumental compositions. Apparently there were originally twenty-one movements—too many for modern auditors lacking barges and hours; generally we hear only six. Some are a bit tiresome in their melodious wandering; but most of them are healthy, joyous, sparkling music, as if flowing from a fountain to make a lullaby for royal mistresses. The Water Music is the oldest piece in today’s orchestral repertoire.
A full generation later, for a second George, Handel dignified another outdoor occasion. To celebrate the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle the government arranged a display of fireworks in the Green Park, and commissioned Handel to write the Royal Fireworks Music.When this was rehearsed in Vauxhall Gardens (April 21, 1749) twelve thousand persons paid the then considerable sum of two shillings each to hear it; so great was the congestion that traffic on the approach over London Bridge was held up for three hours—“probably the most stupendous tribute any composer ever received.”67 On April 27 half of London pushed its way into the Green Park; sixteen yards of its wall had to be torn down to let them enter in time. A “band” of a hundred musicians played Handel’s music, and fireworks sparkled in the sky. A building erected for the occasion caught fire; the crowd panicked; many persons were injured; two died. All that remained of the festivity was Handel’s music. Designed to commemorate a victorious war and to be heard at a distance, it is a blare of bravos and a din of drums, too noisy for an adagio ear; but one largo movement falls gratefully upon tired nerves.
England at last came to love the old German who had striven so hard to be an Englishman. He had failed, but he had tried, even to swearing in English. London had learned to forgive his massive corpulence, his broad face and swelling cheeks, his bow legs and heavy gait, his velvet scarlet greatcoat, his gold-knobbed cane, his proud and haughty air; after all his battles this man had the right to look like a conqueror, or at least a lord. His manners were rough, he disciplined his musicians with love and rage; he scolded his audience for talking at rehearsals; he threatened divas with violence. But he muffled his guns with humor. When Cuzzoni and Bordoni took to fisticuffs on the stage, he said calmly, “Let them fight it out”; and he accompanied their tantrums with a merry obbligato on the kettledrums.68 When a singer threatened to jump upon the harpsichord because Handel’s accompaniments attracted more attention than the singing, Handel asked him to name the date of this proposed performance, so that it might be advertised, for, he said, “more people will come to see you jump than to hear you sing.”69 His bon mots were as remarkable as Jonathan Swift’s, but one had to know four languages to enjoy them.
In 1752 he began to lose his eyesight. While he was writing Jephtha his vision became so blurred that he had to stop. On the autograph manuscript in the British Museum are strange irregularities—“stems placed at some distance from the notes to which they belonged, and notes which had obviously lost their way.”70 At the foot of the page appears a line by the composer: “Have got so far, Wednesday, 13th February. Prevented from continuing because of my left eye.” Ten days later he wrote on the margin: “The 23rd February, am a little better. Resumed work.” Then he composed the music for the words “Our joy is lost in grief, … as day is lost in night.”71 On November 4 The General Advertiser reported: “Yesterday George Frederic Hendel, Esq., was couched [for cataract] by Wm. Brom-field, Esq., surgeon to her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales.” The operation seemed successful, but on January 27, 1753, a London newspaper announced that “Mr. Hendel has at length, unhappily, quite lost his sight.” Later reports indicate that he retained some vestiges of vision till his death.
He continued composing and conducting for seven years more. In six weeks (February 23 to April 6, 1759) he gave two performances of Solomon, one of Samson, two of Judas Maccabaeus, three of the Messiah. But on leaving the theater after the Messiah of April 6 he fainted, and had to be carried to his home. Regaining consciousness, he asked for one more week of life; “I want to die on Good Friday, in the hope of rejoining the good God, my sweet Lord and Saviour, on the day of His Resurrection.”72 He added to his will a codicil bequeathing a thousand pounds to the Society for the Support of Decayed Musicians and Their Families, and substantial bequests to thirteen friends, and “to my maidservants each one year’s wages.” He died on Holy Saturday, April 14, 1759. He was buried in Westminster Abbey on April 20, before “the greatest Concourse of People of all Ranks ever seen upon such or indeed upon any other Occasion.”73
He left an unparalleled quantity of music: forty-six operas, thirty-two oratorios, seventy overtures, seventy-one cantatas, twenty-six concerti grossi, eighteen organ concertos, and so much else that the whole fills a hundred bulky volumes, almost equaling the works of Bach and Beethoven combined. Some of it was repetition, and some of it was theft, for Handel plagiarized, without acknowledgment, from at least twenty-nine authors to help him meet a deadline;74 so the minuet in the overture to Samson was taken, so to say, notatim from Keiser’s opera Claudius.75
It is difficult to estimate Handel, for only a small part of his oeuvre is offered to us today. The operas, except for some captivating arias, are beyond resurrection; they were adjusted to Italian modes that seem irrevocably gone; their extant scores are incomplete, and use symbols and abbreviations now largely unintelligible; they were written for orchestras of quite other constitution than ours, and for voices of a third sex quite different from the intermediate sexes of our time. The concertos remain, a happy hunting ground of forgotten treasures, and the Water Music, and the oratorios. But even the oratorios are “dated,” having been written for embattled Englishmen and grateful Jews; those massive choruses and proliferated vowels require a musicological stomach for their digestion—though we should be glad to hear Jephtha and Israel in Egypt again. Musicians tell us that in the neglected oratorios there is a solemn grandeur, a sublimity of feeling, a power of conception, expression, and drama, a variety and skill in compositional technique, never again reached in the literature of that form. The Messiah survives its repetitions and dismemberments partly because it enshrines the central doctrines of Christianity, dear even to those who have shed them, but chiefly because its profound chants and triumphal choruses make it, all in all, the greatest single composition in the history of music.
England realized his greatness when he was gone. As the anniversary of his birth approached, the nobility, once hostile, joined with King and commoners to commemorate it with three days of his music. As his birth had fallen in 1684 by the English calendar, the first performance was given on May 26, 1784, in Westminster Abbey; the second and third on May 27 and 29. These having failed to meet the demand, two more were given in the Abbey on June 3 and 5. The singers numbered 274, the orchestra 251; now began the custom of making Handel overwhelmingly monumental. Similar immensities celebrated later Handel anniversaries, until in 1874 number of performers swelled to 3,500. Burney, who heard one of these enormities, thought that the quantity of sound had not injured the quality of the music.76 In any case these were the most massive commemorations that any musician has ever received. Now that they have subsided it may be possible to hear Handel’s music again.