George Frideric Handel
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It is a facile habit of popular (and not so popular) musicography to bracket certain musicians in pairs such as Palestrina%u2015Lassus, Bach%u2015Handel, Haydn%u2015Mozart, Bruckner%u2015Mahler, and so forth, a habit that plays havoc with historical and stylistic understanding and leads to mistaken comparisons. The Bach%u2015Handel hyphenation, which we owe to the Germans’ claim to Handel as their very own national composer, is one of the most ill-founded. Handel lived for almost half a century that is all his mature life, in England moreover became a naturalized British subject by Act of Parliament. Furthermore, composed all his important works in and for England, acknowledged his allegiance to his chosen homeland expressis verbis and is buried among England's famous people in Westminster Abbey.
At the age of 18 Handel was cathedral organist in his native Halle, having received a thorough training in the Protestant church musician's métier from Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, one of the ablest German musicians at the turn of the century. But the young man was chafed within the restrictive boundaries of his profession; he wanted something else, the theatre, for which he felt he was born. Suddenly he decided on a risk unheard in those days. He resigned from the coveted position of cathedral organist in order to move to Hamburg, the town of the most important opera house in Germany. The pattern that always was in his life, in no time he reached the top. First an anonymous fiddler in the orchestra, he soon moved to the conductor's harpsichord and then produced his first opera “Almira”.
Those days Hamburg was full of opportunities. There was Johann Mattheson, only a few years older than the newcomer, though an experienced opera hand and a highly cultivated man of the world, from whom Handel learnt a great deal. Even more influential was the acquaintance with Reinhard Keiser (1674- 1739), the leading German opera composer of that time.
Still, Handel once more abandoned from a promising future. Realizing that a sojourn in Italy was essential to an opera composer, one day he gathered his belongings, his scores%u2015and some of Keiser’s%u2015and set out for Italy where he stayed for almost four years. He was a total stranger when he arrived there, but within a year he was again at the top, hobnobbing with princes and cardinals. Moreover, after the great success of his opera “Agrippina” in Venice a career was open to him that would have put the leading composers of Italy in the shade. Nevertheless, once more he decided to abandon everything and press on.
Why Handel left Italy when the doors of all its opera houses were open to him is not clear, but (at least in my opinion) two factors seem to account for it. Despite the genuine welcome of the Italians, he may have realized as later did Johann Christian Bach, the great cantor’s youngest son, who became a Catholic and cathedral organist in Milan that eventually such a conversion, for which he was temperamentally unsuited, would become almost inevitable. On the other hand, he was not willing to accept the lowly social and artistic estate of a German artisan, and England must have appeared to him, from reports he heard from Mattheson and others, as a country where he could achieve success.
Mattheson, among his other occupations such as singer, composer he was a counselor at the British diplomatic mission in Hamburg, thoroughly familiar with English history, letters and socio-cultural conditions. Independence, social, economic and artistic were always of the prime importance to Handel, who undoubtedly formed an idea of the kind of life possible in England, then the most advanced nation in Europe. So, after a brief stint at the court in Hanover he went on an extended leave of absence to verify the facts in situ. After his return to Hanover, his mind was made up, and wangling another leave in 1712; thus, he went to London with the intention of settling down there. He obviously did not envisage a return to Germany; whether he foresaw that George, Elector of Hanover would become King of England, or whether (as the traditional view has it) the confrontation in London was unfortunate as he had ignored the terms of the leave he had been granted, is uncertain. Nevertheless, the King and his perhaps truant musician were quickly on good terms.
Now we again witness Handel’s uncanny ability to make his way up. Even on his first visit, and before he mastered the English language, he found an entry to the best literary and social circles and to the Queen Anne's court; never again would he accept a subordinate position. Now he was welcomed by the aristocracy, notably in the circle around Lord Burlington, and he became the music master of the daughters of George II. They were the only pupils he ever accepted, but he had genuine admiration for Princess Anne's considerable musical talents, working out with the utmost care a course of instruction in composition for her; they became warm friends.
This was the time of the first great expansion of the British Empire, and Britons could scarcely fail to see themselves as divinely favored. At the festive gatherings in St Paul's Cathedral or Westminster Abbey for important celebrations of political and dynastic events, Nonconformists and Jews joined the Established Church in honoring King and country. All were delighted with Handel's robust ceremonial music, royal and popular at the same time, exuding pomp, power, dynastic loyalty, and an unshakable trust and pride in English institutions. This spirit suited Handel, himself a conqueror, and his music expressed it faithfully, notably in the “Te Deum” settings, the coronation anthems, and the anthem-like choruses in his oratorios. The coronation anthems, composed for George II, themselves became an institution; every British monarch since that time has been crowned to their strains. When, from Chrysander onwards, German Handelians have made the mistake of bracketing Handel with Bach as “our great German Lutheran master”, they have failed to realize that this is no longer German music that it announces a new profession of faith and a different national allegiance.
When Handel arrived in England, though young, he was already a master of the operatic métier. Baroque opera was until recently held in disdain, and ignorance of the works was the rule everywhere. But to dismiss opera seria as dead and buried is patently a sign of inability or unwillingness to see beyond the antiquated clichés and conventions. Accustomed as we are to the more or less through-composed opera, the Baroque aria opera does seem alien. There were many arias, often rather isolated, and the opera could degenerate into a vocal concert in costume. When the librettist could not extricate himself from the often impossible imbroglios, he turned to the greatly admired theatre machines which lowered to stage a chariot from which dismounted a god to take over from fate the disposition of the denouement (hence deus ex machine) (Ledbetter, 1990). This, the lieto fine or a happy ending, may destroy the true drama for the modern listener, to whom a logical ending is an imminent necessity for the drama, and tragedy is negated if robbed of its inevitability. The public in the Baroque era demanded not true aesthetic satisfaction in that sense, but entertainment and it wanted its moral sense gratified; good must conquer evil, the sympathetic hero must triumph, the lovers must unite, the conspirators must be punished.
The lieto finebecame almost mandatory both in opera and in oratorio. We see this even in the excellent libretto of Handel's “Semele”. As the work draws towards the inevitable catastrophe, “Semele” is consumed by the fire of Jove’s radiance; but a sort of coda was tacked on, a jubilant celebration of Bacchus, the fruit of “Semele’s” dalliance with Jove (though Bacchus is nowhere hinted at in the drama itself). Though this operatic dramaturgy was ridiculed by some of its contemporaries (Marcello’s satire, Il teatro alla moda, comes to mind), on the whole the Italians did not mind such short-comings and even gloried in the castrato’s unnatural art, so long as the singing was good. Handel was basically a conservative, an “organization man”, who did not question traditions and established customs. His librettos are often trying, thrice belabored versions of old Venetian or Neapolitan opera texts arranged by the house librettists of the Royal Academy (or later other would-be dramatists), with the recitative shortened in order to avoid boring the English-speaking audiences, becoming more and more jumbled in the process. Yet, within this framework he surpassed all others and brought Baroque opera to its zenith.
It surprises us to read that during Handel's stay in Hamburg Mattheson found him strong in counterpoint but weak in melody, although this is understandable given his training in the German cantor's art. The Italian experience released latent gifts and in “Agrippina” he already matched the best the Italians could offer. The first London opera, “Rinaldo”, though a quickly assembled pasticcio, has melodies among his greatest. From here onwards all he needed to learn was to endow his “dramatis personae” with growing intensity and to hone his skill in the use of tonal concordances for architectural organization. Handel was inexhaustible in the art of varying the return of the first section in the da capo arias, betes noires to Gluck and Wagner. Particularly attractive and expressive are the interruptions and substitutions; he will break into the aria with recitatives or ariosos, or even replace the da capo section with something entirely different, or suspend it and immediately enter the next number. In a word, we cannot speak of an invariable pattern, though the plain da capo form was by far the most frequent. There are very few ensembles (other than duets) in the operas, virtually all of them of extraordinary quality (more elaborate ones in the oratorios). They are not yet action pieces in the late 18th-century sense; but from here there is only a step leading to the concerted finale, one of the glories of the Classical opera and something that Gluck did not envisage in his reform. At that, in “Ariodante, “Sosarme”, “Orlando” and “Imeneo” Handel is close to the later finale, though the brilliance of some of the closing sections is marred by the inappropriate happy ending.
Handel’s highly developed dramatic instinct enabled him to take a worn, much used libretto which Rolli or some other hack patched up for him, and with his music give it the appearance of eternal, preordained necessity. His dramatic figures come to life through the intensity and psychological insight of the music, which goes far beyond what is written in the text. The variety of his operatic characters is great, ranging from the cruelty and egotism of Tamburlaine to the noble generosity of Julius Caesar. He depicts few ingénues; his women, like Racine's, are strong and most of them know the secrets of life; even Dorinda, the simple shepherdess in “Orlando”, can become ardent. Alcina is a much more complicated character: a sorceress and a passionately sensuous woman, deadly to the men she captures, but also wildly in love with Ruggiero and crushed when her lover escapes and spurns her. This so-called magic or dance opera is really one of the truly tragic works; with incomparable artistic skill, Alcina’s changing moods are etched with constantly rising dramatic power. Handel knew well the sorceresses and seductresses and always found the right music for them. “Orlando”, also a fairy opera, is one of Handel's most remarkable creations; it is often deliberately disjointed, even confused in style and texture as Orlando falls prey to his deranged fury.
However, Handel was also a master in creating the conscious and happy femininity that is released in love. In the dullest of Handel's oratorios, “Alexander Balus”, it is interesting that when Cleopatra appears everything in this lackluster work instantly changes; Handel’s imagination catches fire, and from that point onwards she dominates the oratorio, though this time as a tragic and suffering woman. Another type, also from an oratorio, is Solomon's young and amorous queen whom Handel rewarded with the “Nightingale Chorus”, the apotheosis of making love al fresco, a ravishing, delicately erotic scene unparalleled in the annals of music.
The orchestral colors in these scenes are of the most exquisite nature, shimmering, insinuating and altogether new and individual for the age. Caesar himself, like Xerxes, is shrewdly characterized. Handel did not want to deface two monuments, so they remain great warriors, but by the subtle echoing and blending of line and color the heroes are lovers touched by the light frost of autumn. Both these works are so delicately sophisticated that it takes a long time %u2015as it did with “Cosifan tutte” %u2015before listeners come to understand and love them.
To conclude, Handel absorbed everything and delighted in everything; one could say that he was the ultimate amateur in the primary sense of the word. But this amateur owned all the riches of the world. He was not interested in metaphysics or in the old German Christian mysticism, with its frequent reflection on death as the prelude to salvation. On the contrary, he reveled in life and beauty, particularly as manifested by men and women who love or hate, scheme or sacrifice.