|George Frideric Handel|
AKA Georg Friedrich Händel
Birthplace: Halle, Brandenburg, Germany
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, London, England
Race or Ethnicity: White
Executive summary: Messiah
English musical composer, German by origin, born at Halle in Lower Saxony, on the 23rd of February 1685. His name was Händel, but, like most 18th century musicians who traveled, he compromised with its pronunciation by foreigners, and when in Italy spelled it Hendel, and in England (where he became naturalized) accepted the version Handel, which is therefore correct for English writers, while Händel remains the correct version in Germany. His father was a barber-surgeon, who disapproved of music, and wished George Frederick to become a lawyer. A friend smuggled a clavichord into the attic, and on this instrument, which is inaudible behind a closed door, the little boy practiced secretly. Before he was eight his father went to visit a son by a former marriage who was a valet-de-chambre to the duke of Saxe-Weissenfels. The little boy begged in vain to go also, and at last ran after the carriage on foot so far that he had to be taken, He made acquaintance with the court musicians and contrived to practice on the organ when he could be overheard by the duke, who immediately recognizing his talent, spoke seriously to the father who had to yield to his arguments. On returning to Halle Handel became a pupil of Zachau, the cathedral organist, who gave him a thorough training as a composer and as a performer on keyed instruments, the oboe and the violin. Six very good trios for two oboes and bass, which Handel wrote at the age of ten, are extant; and when he himself was shown them by an English admirer who had discovered them, he was much amused and remarked, "I wrote like the devil in those days, and chiefly for the oboe, which was my favorite instrument." His master also of course made him write an enormous amount of vocal music, and he had to produce a motet every week. By the time he was twelve Zachau thought he could teach him no more, and accordingly the boy was sent to Berlin, where he made a great impression at the court.
His father, however, thought fit to decline the proposal of the elector of Brandenburg, afterwards King Frederick I of Prussia, to send the boy to Italy in order afterwards to attach him to the court at Berlin. German court musicians, as late as the time of Mozart, had hardly enough freedom to satisfy a man of independent character, and the elder Händel had not yet given up hope of his son's becoming a lawyer. Young Handel, therefore, returned to Halle and resumed his work with Zachau. In 1697 his father died, but the boy showed great filial piety in finishing the ordinary course of his education, both general and musical, and even entering the university of Halle in 1702 as a law student. But in that year he succeeded to the post of organist at the cathedral, and after his "probation" year in that capacity he departed to Hamburg, where the only German opera worthy of the name was flourishing under the direction of its founder, Reinhold Keiser. Here he became friends with Matheson, a prolific composer and writer on music. On one occasion they set out together to go to Lübeck, where a successor was to be appointed to the post left vacant by the great organist Buxtehude, who was retiring on account of his extreme age. Handel and Matheson made much music on this occasion, but did not compete, because they found that the successful candidate was required to accept the hand of the elderly daughter of the retiring organist.
Another adventure might have had still more serious consequences. At a performance of Matheson's opera Cleopatra at Hamburg, Handel refused to give up the conductor's seat to the composer when the latter returned to his usual post at the harpsichord after singing the part of Antony on the stage. The dispute led to a duel outside the theater, and, but for a large button on Handel's coat which intercepted Matheson's sword, there would have been no Messiah or Israel in Egypt. But the young men remained friends, and Matheson's writings are full of the most valuable facts for Handel's biography. He relates in his Ehrenpforte that his friend at that time used to compose "interminable cantatas" of no great merit; but of these no traces now remain, unless we assume that a Passion according to St. John, the manuscript of which is in the royal library at Berlin, is among the works alluded to. But its authenticity, while strongly upheld by Chrysander, has recently been as strongly assailed on internal evidence.
On the 8th of January 1705, Handel's first opera, Almira, was performed at Hamburg with great success, and was followed a few weeks later by another work, entitled Nero. That work is lost, but Almira, with its mixture of Italian and German language and form, remains as a valuable example of the tendencies of the time and of Handel's eclectic methods. It contains many themes used by Handel in well-known later works; but the current statement that the famous aria in Rinaldo, "Lascia ch'io pianga", comes from a saraband in Almira, is based upon nothing more definite than the inevitable resemblance between the simplest possible forms of saraband-rhythm.
In 1706 Handel left Hamburg for Italy, where he remained for three years, rapidly acquiring the smooth Italian vocal style which hereafter always characterized his work. He had before this refused offers from noble patrons to send him there, but had now saved enough money, not only to support his mother at home, but to travel as his own master. He divided his time in Italy between Florence, Rome, Naples and Venice and many anecdotes are preserved, of his meetings with Arcangelo Corelli, Lotti, Alessandro Scarlatti and Domenico Scarlatti, whose wonderful harpsichord technique still has a direct bearing on some of the most modern features of pianoforte style. Handel soon became famous as Il Sassone ("the Saxon"), and it is said that Domenico on first hearing him play incognito exclaimed, "It is either the devil or the Saxon!" Then there is a story of Corelli's coming to grief over a passage in Handel's overture to Il Trionfo del tempo, in which the violins went up to A in altissimo. Handel impatiently snatched the violin to show Corelli how the passage ought to be played, and Corelli, who had never written or played beyond the third position in his life (this passage being in the seventh), said gently, "My dear Saxon, this music is in the French style, which I do not understand." In Italy Handel produced two operas, Rodrigo and Agrippina, the latter a very important work, of which the splendid overture was remodeled forty-four years afterwards as that of his last original oratorio, Jephtha. He also produced two oratorios, La Resurrezione, and Il Trionfo del tempo. This, forty-six years afterwards, formed the basis of his last work, The Triumph of Time and Truth, which contains no original matter. All Handel's early works contain material that he used often with very little alteration later on, and, though the famous "Lascia ch'io pianga" does not occur in Almira, it occurs note for note in Agrippina and the two Italian oratorios. On the other hand the cantata Aci, Galattea e Polifemo has nothing in common with Acis and Galatea. Besides these larger works there are several choral and solo cantatas of which the earliest, such as the great Dixit Dominus, show in their extravagant vocal difficulty how radical was the change which Handel's Italian experience so rapidly effected in his methods.
Handel's success in Italy established his fame and led to his receiving at Venice in 1709 the offer of the post of Kapellmeister to the elector of Hanover, transmitted to him by Baron Kielmansegge, his patron and staunch friend of later years. Handel at the time contemplated a visit to England, and he accepted this offer on condition of leave of absence being granted to him for that purpose. To England accordingly Handel journeyed after a short stay at Hanover, arriving in London towards the close of 1710. He came as a composer of Italian opera, and earned his first success at the Haymarket with Rinaldo, composed, to the consternation of the hurried librettist, in a fortnight, and first performed on the 24th of February 1711. In this opera the aria "Lascia ch'io pianga" found its final home. The work was produced with the utmost magnificence, and Joseph Addison's delightful reviews of it in the Spectator poked fun at it from an unmusical point of view in a way that sometimes curiously foreshadows the criticisms that Gluck might have made on such things at a later period. The success was so great, especially for Walsh the publisher, that Handel proposed that Walsh should compose the next opera, and that he should publish it. He returned to Hanover at the close of the opera season, and composed a good deal of vocal chamber music for the princess Caroline, the step-daughter of the elector, besides the instrumental works known to us as the oboe concertos. In 1712 Handel returned to London and spent a year with Andrews, a rich musical amateur, in Barn Elms, Surrey. Three more years were spent in Burlington, in the neighborhood of London. He evidently was but little inclined to return to Hanover, in spite of his duties to the court there. Two Italian operas and the Utrecht Te Deum written by the command of Queen Anne are the principal works of this period. It was somewhat awkward for the composer when his deserted master came to London in 1714 as George I of England. For some time Handel did not venture to appear at court, and it was only at the intercession of Baron Kielmansegge that his pardon was obtained. By his advice Handel wrote the Water Music which was performed at a royal water party on the Thames, and it so pleased the king that he at once received the composer into his good graces and granted him a salary of £400 a year. Later Handel became music master to the little princesses and was given an additional £200 by the princess Caroline. In 1716 he followed the king to Germany, where he wrote a second German Passion to the popular poem of Brockes, a text which, divested of its worst features, forms the basis of several of the arias in Bach's Passion according to St. John. This was Handel's last work to a German text.
On his return to England he entered the service of the duke of Chandos as conductor of his concerts, receiving £1000 for his first oratorio Esther. The music which Handel wrote for performance at "Cannons", the duke of Chandos' residence at Edgware, is comprised in the first version of Esther, Acis and Galatea, and the twelve Chandos Anthems, which are compositions approximately in the same form as Bach's church cantatas but without any systematic use of chorale tunes. The fashionable Londoner would travel 9 miles in those days to the little chapel of Whitchurch to hear Handel's music, and all that now remains of the magnificent scene of these visits is the church, which is the parish church of Edgware. In 1720 Handel appeared again in a public capacity as impresario of the Italian opera at the Haymarket theater, which he managed for the institution called the Royal Academy of Music. Senesino, a famous singer, to engage whom Handel especially journeyed to Dresden, was the mainstay of the enterprise, which opened with a highly successful performance of Handel's opera Radamisto. To this time belongs the famous rivalry between Handel and Buononcini, a melodious Italian composer whom many thought to be the greater of the two. The controversy has been perpetuated in John Byrom's lines:
Some say, compared to Buononcini
That Mynheer Handel's but a ninny;
Others aver that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a candle.
Strange all this difference should be
Twixt tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee.
It must be remembered that at this time Handel had not yet asserted his greatness as a choral writer; the fashionable ideas of music and musicianship were based entirely upon success in Italian opera, and the contest between the rival composers was waged on the basis of works which have fallen into almost as complete an oblivion in Handel's case as in Buononcini's. None of Handel's forty-odd Italian operas can be said to survive, except in some two or three detached arias out of each opera; arias which reveal their essential qualities far better in isolation than when performed in groups of between twenty and thirty on the stage, as interruptions to the action of a classical drama to which nobody paid the slightest attention. But even within these limits Handel's artistic resources were too great to leave the issue in doubt; and when Handel wrote the third act of an opera Muzio Scevola, of which Buononcini and Ariosti wrote the other two, his triumph was decisive, especially as Buononcini soon got into discredit by failing to defend himself against the charge of producing as a prize-madrigal of his own a composition which proved to be by Lotti. At all events Buononcini left London, and Handel for the next ten years was without a rival in his ventures as an operatic composer. He was not, however, without a rival as an impresario; and the hostile competition of a rival company which obtained the services of the great Farinelli and also induced Senesino to desert him, led to his bankruptcy in 1737, and to an attack of paralysis caused by anxiety and overwork. The rival company also had to be dissolved from want of support, so that Handel's misfortunes must not be attributed to any failure to maintain his position in the musical world. Handel's artistic conscience was that of the most easygoing opportunist, or he would never have continued until 1741 to work in a field that gave so little scope for his genius. But the public seemed to want operas, and, if opera had no scope for his genius, at all events he could supply better operas with greater rapidity and ease than any three other living composers working together. And this he naturally continued to do so long as it seemed to be the best way to keep up his reputation. But with all this artistic opportunism he was not a man of tact, and there are numerous stories of the type of his holding the great prima donna Cuzzoni at arm's-length out of a window and threatening to drop her unless she consented to sing a song which she had declared unsuitable to her style.
Already before his last opera, Deidamia, produced in 1741, Handel had been making a growing impression with his oratorios. In these, freed from the restrictions of the stage, he was able to give scope to his genius for choral writing, and so to develop, or rather revive, that art of chorus singing which is the normal outlet for English musical talent. In 1726 Handel had become a naturalized Englishman, and in 1733 he began his public career as a composer of English texts by producing the second and larger version of Esther at the King's theatre. This was followed early in the same year by Deborah, in which the share of the chorus is much greater. In July he produced Athalia at Oxford, the first work in which his characteristic double choruses appear. The share of the chorus increases in Saul (1738); and Israel in Egypt (also 1738) is practically entirely a choral work, the solo movements, in spite of their fame, being as perfunctory in character as they are few in number. It was not unnatural that the public, who still considered Italian opera the highest, because the most modern form of musical art, obliged Handel at subsequent performances of this gigantic work to insert more solos.
The Messiah was produced at Dublin on the 13th of April 1742. Samson (which Handel preferred to the Messiah) appeared at Covent Garden on the 2nd of March 1744; Belshazzar at the King's theater, 27th of March 1745; the Occasional Oratorio (chiefly a compilation of the earlier oratorios, but with a few important new numbers), on the 14th of February 1746 at Covent Garden, where all his later oratorios were produced; Judas Maccabaeus on the 1st of April 1747; Joshua on the 9th of March 1748; Alexander Balus on the 23rd of March 1748; Solomon on the 17th of March 1749; Susanna, spring of 1749; Theodora, a great favorite of Handel's, who was much disappointed by its cold reception, on the 16th of March 1750; Jephtha (strictly speaking, his last work) on the 26th of February 1752, and The Triumph of Time and Truth (transcribed from Il Trionfo del tempo with the addition of many later favorite numbers), 1757. Other important works, indistinguishable in artistic form from oratorios, but on secular subjects, are Alexander's Feast, 1736; Ode for St. Cecilia's Day (words by John Dryden); L'Allegro, il pensieroso ed il moderato (the words of the third part by Jennens), 1740; Semele, 1744; Hercules, 1745; and The Choice of Hercules, 1751.
By degrees the enmity against Handel died away, though he had many troubles. In 1745 he had again become bankrupt; for, although he had no rival as a composer of choral music it was possible for his enemies to give balls and banquets on the nights of his oratorio performances. As with his first bankruptcy, so in his later years, he showed scrupulous sense of honor in discharging his debts, and he continued to work hard to the end of his life. He had not only completely recovered his financial position by the year 1750, but he must have made a good deal of money, for he then presented an organ to the Foundling Hospital, and opened it with a performance of the Messiah on the 15th of May. In 1751 his sight began to trouble him; and the autograph of Jephtha, published in facsimile by the Händelgesellschaft, shows pathetic traces of this in his handwriting, and so affords a most valuable evidence of his methods of composition, all the accompaniments, recitatives, and less essential portions of the work being evidently filled in long after the rest. He underwent unsuccessful operations, one of them by the same surgeon who had operated on Bach's eyes. There is evidence that he was able to see at intervals during his last years, but his sight practically never returned after May 1752. He continued superintending performances of his works and writing new arias for them, or inserting revised old ones, and he attended a performance of the Messiah a week before his death, which took place, according to the Public Advertiser of the 16th of April, not on Good Friday, the 13th of April, according to his own pious wish and according to common report, but on the 14th of April 1759. He was buried in Westminster Abbey; and his monument is by L. F. Roubilliac, the same sculptor who modelled the marble statue erected in 1739 in Vauxhall Gardens, where his works had been frequently performed.
Handel was a man of high character and intelligence, and his interest was not confined to his own art exclusively. He liked the society of politicians and literary men, and he was also a collector of pictures and articles of vertu. His power of work was enormous, and the Händelgesellschaft's edition of his complete works fills one hundred volumes, forming a total bulk almost equal to the works of Bach and Beethoven together.
No one has more successfully popularized the greatest artistic ideals than Handel; no artist is more disconcerting to critics who imagine that a great man's mental development is easy to follow. Not even Richard Wagner effected a greater transformation in the possibilities of dramatic music than Handel effected in oratorio, yet we have seen that Handel was the very opposite of a reformer. He was not even conservative, and he hardly took the pains to ascertain what an art form was, so long as something externally like it would convey his idea. But he never failed to convey his idea, and, if the hybrid forms in which he conveyed it had no historic influence and no typical character, they were none the less accurate in each individual case. The same aptness and the same absence of method are conspicuous in his style. The popular idea that Handel's style is easily recognizable comes from the fact that he overshadows all his predecessors and contemporaries, except Bach, and so makes us regard typical 18th century Italian and English style as Handelian, instead of regarding Handel's style as typical Italian 18th century. Nothing in music requires more minute expert knowledge than the sifting of the real peculiarities of Handel's style from the mass of contemporary formulae which in his inspired pages he absorbed, and which in his uninspired pages absorbed him.
His easy mastery was acquired, like Mozart's, in childhood. The later sonatas for two oboes and bass which he wrote in his eleventh year are, except in their diffuseness and an occasional slip in grammar, indistinguishable from his later works, and they show a boyish inventiveness worthy of Mozart's work at the same age. Such early choral works, as the Dixit Dominus (1707), show the ill-regulated power of his choral writing before he assimilated Italian influences. Its practical difficulties are at least as extravagant as Bach's, while they are not accounted for by any corresponding originality and necessity of idea; hut the grandeur of the scheme and nobility of thought is already that for which Handel so often in later years found the simplest and easiest adequate means of expression that music has ever attained. His eminently practical genius soon formed his vocal style, and long before the period of his great oratorios, such works as The Birthday Ode for Queen Anne (1713) and the Utrecht Te Deum show not a trace of German extravagance. The only drawback to his practical genius was that it led him to bury perhaps half of his finest melodies, and nearly all the secular features of interest in his treatment of instruments and of the aria forms, in that deplorable limbo of vanity, the 18th century Italian opera. It is not true, as has been alleged against him, that his operas are in no way superior to those of his contemporaries; but neither is it true that he stirred a finger to improve the condition of dramatic musical art. He was no slave to singers, as is amply testified by many anecdotes. Nor was he bound by the operatic conventions of the time. In Teseo he not only wrote an opera in five acts when custom prescribed three, but also broke a much more plausible rule in arranging that each character should have two arias in succession. He also showed a feeling for expression and style which led him to write arias of types which singers might not expect. But he never made any innovation which had the slightest bearing upon the stagecraft of opera, for he never concerned himself with any artistic question beyond the matter in hand; and the matter in hand was not to make dramatic music, or to make the story interesting or intelligible, but simply to provide a concert of between some twenty and thirty Italian arias and duets, wherein singers could display their abilities and spectators find distraction from the monotony of so large a dose of the aria form (which was then the only possibility for solo vocal music) in the gorgeousness of the dresses and scenery.
When the question arose how a musical entertainment of this kind could be managed in Lent without protests from the bishop of London, Handelian oratorio came into being as a matter of course. But though Handel was an opportunist he was not shallow. His artistic sense seized upon the natural possibilities which arose as soon as the music was transferred from the stage to the concert platform; and his first English oratorio, Esther (1720), beautifully shows the transition. The subject is as nearly secular as any that can be extracted from the Bible, and the treatment was based on Jean Racine's Esther, which was much discussed at the time. Handel's oratorio was reproduced in an enlarged version in 1732 at the King's theater: the princess royal wished for scenery and action, but the bishop of London protested. And the choruses, of which in the first version there are already no fewer than ten, are on the one hand operatic and unecciesiastical in expression, until the last, where polyphonic work on a large scale first appears; but on the other hand they are all much too long to be sung by heart, as is necessary in operas. In fact, the turning-point in Handel's development is the emancipation of the chorus from theatrical limitations. This had as great effect upon his few but important secular English works as upon his other oratorios. Acis and Galatea, Semele and Hercules, are in fact secular oratorios; the choral music in them is not ecclesiastical, but it is large, independent and polyphonic.
We must remember, then, that Handel's scheme of oratorio is operatic in its origin and has no historic connection with such principles as might have been generalized from the practice of the German Passion music of the time; and it is sufficiently astonishing that the chorus should have so readily assumed its proper place in a scheme which the public certainly regarded as a sort of Lenten biblical opera. And, although the chorus owes its freedom of development to the disappearance of theatrical necessities, it becomes no less powerful as a means of dramatic expression (as opposed to dramatic action) than as a purely musical resource. Already in Athalia the "Hallelujah" chorus at the end of the first act is a marvel of dramatic truth. It is sung by Israelites almost in despair beneath usurping tyranny; and accordingly it is a severe double fugue in a minor key, expressive of devout courage at a moment of depression. On purely musical grounds it is no less powerful in throwing into the highest possible relief the ecstatic solemnity of the psalm with which the second act opens. Now this sombre "Hallelujah" chorus is a very convenient illustration of Handel's originality, and the point in which his creative power really lies. It was not originally written for its situation in Athalia, but it was chosen for it. It was originally the last chorus of the second version of the anthem, As pants the Hart, from the autograph of which it is missing because Handel cut out the last pages in order to insert them into the manuscript of Athalia. The inspiration in Athalia thus lies not in the creation of the chorus itself, but in the choice of it.
In choral music Handel made no more innovation than he made in arias. His sense of fitness in expression was of little use to him in opera, because opera could not become dramatic until musical form became capable of developing and blending emotions in all degrees of climax in a way that may be described as pictorial and not merely decorative. But in oratorio there was not the least necessity for reforming any art forms. The ordinary choral resources of the time had perfect expressive possibilities where there were no actors to keep waiting, and where no dresses and scenery need distract the attention of the listener. When lastly, ordinary decorum dictated an attitude of reverent attention towards the subject of the oratorio, then the man of genius could find such a scope for his real sense of dramatic fitness as would make his work immortal.
In estimating Handel's greatness we must think away all orthodox musical and progressive prejudices, and learn to apply the lessons critics of architecture and some critics of literature seem to know by nature. Originality, in music as in other arts, lies in the whole, and in a sense of the true meaning of every part. When Handel wrote a normal double fugue in a minor key on the word "Hallelujah" he showed that he at all events knew what a vigorous and dignified thing an 18th century double fugue could be. In putting it at the end of a melancholy psalm he showed his sense of the value of the minor mode. When he put it in its situation in Athalia he showed as perfect a sense of dramatic and musical fitness as could well be found in art. Now it is obvious that in works like oratorios (which are dramatic schemes vigorously but loosely organized by the putting together of some twenty or thirty complete pieces of music) the proper conception of originality will be very different from that which animates the composer of modern lyric, operatic or symphonic music. When we add to this the characteristics of a method like Handel's, in which musical technique has become a masterly automatism, it becomes evident that our conception of originality must be at least as broad as that which we would apply in the criticism of architecture. The disadvantages of the want of such a conception have been aggravated by the dearth of general knowledge of the structure of musical art; a knowledge which shows that the parallel we have suggested between music and architecture, as regards the nature of originality, is no mere figure of speech.
In every art there is an antithesis between form and matter, which becomes reconciled only when the work of art is perfect in its execution. And, whatever this perfection, the antithesis must always remain in the mind of the artist and critic to this extent, that some part of the material seems to be the special subject of technical rule rather than another. In the plastic and literary arts one type of this antithesis is more or less permanently maintained in the relation between subject and treatment. The mere fact that these arts express themselves by representing things that have some previous independent existence, helps us to look for originality rather in the things that make for perfection of treatment than in novelty of subject. But in music we have no permanent means of deciding which of many aspects we shall call the subject and which the treatment. In the 16th century the a priori form existed mainly in the practice of basing almost every melodic detail of the work on phrases of Gregorian chant or popular song, treated for the most part in terms of very definitely regulated polyphonic design, and on harmonic principles regulated in almost every detail by the relation between the melodic aspects of the church modes and the necessity for occasional alterations of the strict mode to secure finality at the close. In modern music such a relation between form and matter, prescribing as it does for every aspect at every moment both of the shape and the texture of the music, would exclude the element of invention altogether. In 16th century music it by no means had that effect. An inventive 16th century composer is as clearly distinguishable from a dull one as a good architect from a bad. The originality of the composer resides, in 16th century music as in all art, in his whole work; but naturally his conception of property and ideas will not extend to themes or isolated passages. That man is entitled to an idea who can show what it means, or who can make it mean what he likes. Let him wear the giant's robe if it fits him. And it is merely a local difference in point of view which makes us think that there is property in themes and no property in forms. Nowadays we happen to regard the shape of a whole composition as its form, and its theme as its matter. And, as artistic organization becomes more complex and heterogeneous, the need of the broadest and most forcible possible outline of design is more pressingly felt; so that in what we choose to call form we are willing to sacrifice all conception of originality for the sake of general intelligibility, while we insist upon complete originality in those thematic details which we are pleased to call matter. But, if this explains, it does not excuse our setting up a criterion for musical originality which can be accepted by no intelligent critics of other arts, and which is completely upset by the study of any music earlier than the beginning of the 19th century.
The difficulty many writers have found in explaining the subject of Handel's "plagiarisms" is not entirely accounted for by mere lack of these considerations; but the grossest confusion of ideas as to the difference between cases in point prevails to this day, and many discussions which have been raised in regard to the ethical aspect of the question are frankly absurd. It has been argued, for instance, that great injustice was done to Buononcini over his unfortunate affair with the prize madrigal, while his great rival was allowed the credit of Israel in Egypt, which contains a considerable number of entire choruses (besides hosts of themes) by earlier Italian and German writers. But the very idea of Handelian oratorio is that of some three hours of music, religious or secular, arranged, like opera, in the form of a colossal entertainment, and with high dramatic and emotional interest imparted to it, if not by the telling of a story, at all events by the nature and development of the subject. It seems, moreover, to be entirely overlooked that the age was an age of pasticcios. Nothing was more common than the organization of some such solemn entertainment by the skilful grouping of favorite pieces. Handel himself never revived one of his oratorios without inserting in it favorite pieces from his other works as well as several new numbers; and the story is well known that the turning point in Gluck's career was his perception of the true possibilities of dramatic music from the failure of a pasticcio in which he had reset some rather definitely expressive music to situations for which it was not originally designed. The success of an oratorio was due to the appropriateness of its contrasts, together of course with the mastery of its detail, whether that detail were new or old; and there are many gradations between a réchauffé of an early work like The Triumph of Time and Truth, or a pasticcio with a few original numbers like the Occasional Oratorio, and such works as Samson, which was entirely new except that the "Dead March" first written for it was immediately replaced by the more famous one imported from Saul. That the idea of the pasticcio was extremely familiar to the age is shown by the practice of announcing an oratorio as "new and original", a term which would obviously be meaningless if it were as much a matter of course as it is at the present day, and which, if used at all, must obviously so apply to the whole work without forbidding the composer from gratifying the public with the reproduction of one or two favorite arias. But of course the question of originality becomes more serious when the imported numbers are not the composer's own. And here it is very noticeable that Handel derived no credit, either with his own public or with us, from whole movements that are not of his own designing. In Israel in Egypt, the choruses "Egypt was glad when they departed", "And I will exalt Him", "Thou sentest forth Thy Wrath" and "The Earth swallowed them", are without exception the most colorless and unattractive pieces of severe counterpoint to be found among Handel's works; and it is very difficult to fathom his motive in copying them from obscure pieces by Erba and Kaspar Kerl, unless it be that he wished to train his audiences to a better understanding of a polyphonic style. He certainly felt that the greatest possibilities of music lay in the higher choral polyphony, and so in Israel in Egypt he designed a work consisting almost entirely of choruses, and may have wished in these instances for severe contrapuntal movements which he had not time to write, though he could have done them far better himself. Be this as it may, these choruses have certainly added nothing to the popularity of a work of which the public from the outset complained that there was not enough solo music; and what effect they have is merely to throw Handel's own style into relief. To draw any parallel between the theft of such unattractive details in the grand and intensely Handelian scheme of Israel in Egypt and Buononcini's alleged theft of a prize madrigal is merely ridiculous. Handel himself, if he had any suspicion that contemporaries did not take a sane architect's view of the originality of large musical schemes, probably gave himself no more trouble about their scruples on this matter than about other forms of musical banality.
The History of Music by Charles Burney, the cleverest and most refined musical critic of the age, shows in the very freshness of its musical scholarship how completely unscholarly were the musical ideas of the time. Burney was incapable of regarding choral music as other than a highly improving academic exercise in which he himself was proficient; and for him Handel is the great opera writer whose choral music will reward the study of the curious. If Handel had attempted to explain his methods to the musicians of his age, he would probably have found himself alone in his opinions as to the property of musical ideas. He did not trouble to explain, but he made no concealment of his sources. He left his whole musical library to his copyist, and it was from this that the sources of his work were discovered. And when the whole series of "plagiarisms" is studied, the fact forces itself upon us that nothing except themes and forms which are common property in all 18th century music, has yet been discovered as the source of any work of Handel's which is not felt as part of a larger design. Operatic arias were never felt as parts of a whole. The opera was a concert on the stage, and it stood or fell, not by a dramatic propriety which it notoriously neglected to consider at all, but by the popularity of its arias. There is no aria in Handel's operas which is traceable to another composer. Even in the oratorios there is no solo number in which more than the themes are pilfered, for in oratorios the solo work still appealed to the popular criterion of novelty and individual attractiveness. And when we leave the question of copying of whole movements and come to that of the adaptation of passages, and still more of themes, Handel shows himself to be simply on a line with Mozart. Jahn compares the opening of Mozart's Requiem with that of the first chorus in Handel's Funeral Anthem. Mozart recreates at least as much from Handel's already perfect framework as Handel ever idealized from the inorganic fragments of earlier writers. The double counterpoint of the Kyrie in Mozart's Requiem is still more indisputably identical with that of the last chorus of Handel's Joseph, and if the themes are common property their combination certainly is not. But the true plagiarist is the man who does not know the meaning of the ideas he copies, and the true creator is he in whose hands they remain or become true ideas. The theme "He led them forth like sheep" in the chorus "But as for his people" is one of the most beautiful in Handel's works, and the bare statement that it comes from a serenata by Alessandro Stradella seems at first rather shocking. But, to any one who knew Stradella's treatment of it first, Handel's would come as a revelation actually greater than if he had never heard the theme before. Stradella makes nothing more of it, and therefore presumably sees nothing more in it than an agreeable and essentially frivolous little tune which lends itself to comic dramatic purpose by a wearisome repetition throughout eight pages of patchy aria and instrumental ritornello at an ever-increasing pace. What Handel sees in it is what he makes of it, one of the most solemn and poetic things in music. Again, it may be very shocking to discover that the famous opening of the "Hailstone chorus" comes from the patchy and facetious overture to this same serenata, with which it is identical for ten bars all in the tonic chord (representing, according to Stradella, someone knocking at a door). And it is no doubt yet more shocking that the chorus "He spake the word, and there came all manner of flies" contains no idea of Handel's own except the realistic swarming violin-passages, the general structure, and the vocal coloring; whereas the rhythmic and melodic figures of the voice parts come from an equally patchy sinfonia concertata in Stradella's work. The real interest of these things ought not to be denied either by the misstatement that the materials adapted are mere common property, nor by the calumny that Handel was uninventive.
The effects of Handel's original inspiration upon foreign material are really the best indication of the range of his style. The comic meaning of the broken rhythm of Stradella's overture becomes indeed Handel's inspiration in the light of the gigantic tone-picture of the "Hailstone chorus." In the theme of "He led them forth like sheep" we have already cited a particular case where Handel perceived great solemnity in a theme originally intended to be frivolous. The converse process is equally instructive. In the short Carillon choruses in Saul where the Israelitish women welcome David after his victory over Goliath, Handel uses a delightful instrumental tune which stands at the beginning of a Te Deum by Urio, from which he borrowed an enormous amount of material in Saul, L'Allegro, the Dettingen Te Deum and other works. Urio's idea is first to make a jubilant and melodious noise from the lower register of the strings, and then to bring out a flourish of high trumpets as a contrast. He has no other use for his beautiful tune, which indeed would not bear more elaborate treatment than he gives it. The ritornello falls into statement and counterstatement, and the counterstatement secures one repetition of the tune, after which no more is heard of it. It has none of the solemnity of church music, and its value as a contrast to the flourish of trumpets depends, not upon itself, but upon its position in the orchestra. Handel did not see in it a fine opening for a great ecclesiastical work, but he saw in it an admirable expression of popular jubilation, and he understood how to bring out its character with the liveliest sense of climax and dramatic interest by taking it at its own value as a popular tune. So he uses it as an instrumental interlude accompanied with a jingle of carillons, while the daughters of Israel sing to a square-cut tune those praises of David which aroused the jealousy of Saul. But now turn to the opening of the Dettingen Te Deum and see what splendid use is made of the other side of Urio's idea, the contrast between a jubilant noise in the lowest part of the scale and the blaze of trumpets at an extreme height. In the fourth bar of the Dettingen Te Deum we find the same florid trumpet figures as we find in the fifth bar of Urio's, but at the first moment they are on oboes. The first four bars beat a tattoo on the tonic and dominant, with the whole orchestra, including trumpets and drums, in the lowest possible position and in a stirring rhythm with a boldness and simplicity characteristic only of a stroke of genius. Then the oboes appear with Urio's trumpet flourishes; the momentary contrast is at least as brilliant as Urio's; and as the oboes are immediately followed by the same figures on the trumpets themselves the contrast gains incalculably in subtlety and climax. Moreover, these flourishes are more melodious than the broad and massive opening, instead of being, as in Urio's scheme, incomparably less so. Lastly, Handel's primitive opening rhythmic figures inevitably underlie every subsequent inner part and bass that occurs at every half close and full close throughout the movement, especially where the trumpets are used. And thus every detail of his scheme is rendered alive with a rhythmic significance which the elementary nature of the theme prevents from ever becoming obtrusive.
No other great composer has ever so overcrowded his life with occasional and mechanical work as Handel, and in no other artist are the qualities that make the difference between inspired and uninspired pages more difficult to analyze. The libretti of his oratorios are full of absurdities, except when they are derived in every detail from Scripture, as in the Messiah and Israel in Egypt, or from the classics of English literature, as in Samson and L'Allegro. These absurdities, and the obvious fad that in every oratorio Handel writes many more numbers than are desirable for one performance, and that he was continually in later performances adding, transferring and cutting out solo numbers and often choruses as well -- all this may seem at first sight to militate seriously against the view that Handel's originality and greatness consists in his grasp of the works as wholes, but in reality it strengthens that view. These things militate against the perfection of the whole, but they would have been absolutely fatal to a work of which the whole is not (as in all true art) greater than the sum of its parts. That they are felt as absurdities and defects already shows that Handel created in English oratorio a true art form on the largest possible scale.
There never has been a time when Handel has been overrated, except in so far as other composers have been neglected. But no composer has suffered so much from pious misinterpretation and the popular admiration of misleading externals. It is not the place here to dilate upon the burial of Handel's art beneath the "mammoth" performances of the Handel Festivals at the Crystal Palace; nor can we give more than a passing reference to the effects of "additional accompaniments" in the style of an altogether later age, started most unfortunately by Mozart (whose share in the work has been very much misinterpreted and corrupted) and continued in the middle of the 19th century by musicians of every degree of intelligence and refinement, until all sense of unity of style has been lost and does not seem likely to be recovered as a general element in the popular appreciation of Handel for some time to come. But in spite of this, Handel will never cease to be revered and loved as one of the greatest of composers, if we value the criteria of architectonic power, a perfect sense of style, and the power to rise to the most sublime height of musical climax by the simplest means.
Handel's important works have all been mentioned above with their dates, and a separate detailed list does not seem necessary. He was an extremely rapid worker, and his later works are dated almost day by day as they proceed. From this we learn that the Messiah was sketched and scored within twenty-one days, and that even Jephtha, with an interruption of nearly four months besides several other delays caused by Handel's failing sight, was begun and finished within seven months, representing hardly five weeks' actual writing. Handel's extant works may be roughly summarized from the edition of the Händelgesellschaft as: 41 Italian operas, 2 Italian oratorios, 2 German Passions, 18 English oratorios, 4 English secular oratorios, 4 English secular cantatas, and a few other small works, English and Italian, of the type of oratorio or incidental dramatic music; 3 Latin settings of the Te Deum; the (English) Dettingen Te Deum and Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate; 4 coronation anthems; 3 volumes of English anthems (Chandos Anthems); 1 volume of Latin church music; 3 volumes of Italian vocal chamber-music; 1 volume of clavier works; 37 instrumental duets and trios (sonatas), and 4 volumes of orchestral music and organ concertos (about 40 works). Precise figures are impossible as there is no means of drawing the line between pasticcios and original works. The instrumental pieces especially are used again and again as overtures to operas and oratorios and anthems.
Father: (barber, d. 1669)
University: University of Halle
Duel: Swords with Matheson
Naturalized UK Citizen 1726
Is the subject of books:
George Frideric Handel, 1966, BY: Paul Henry Lang
Handel: The Man and His Music, 1985, BY: Jonathan Keates
Do you know something we don't?
Submit a correction or make a comment about this profile
Copyright ©2014 Soylent Communications