Fry the Handelian

January 21, 2008

_44341196_kingdom_itv_203.jpg The Times of London reports that the astounding polymath Stephen Fry, writer, actor, comedian, novelist, columnist, filmmaker, television game-show host, and blogger of genius is planning a movie that will go into Handel’s personal life. Since that’s a subject that the composer has managed to keep pretty dark for three hundred years, such an announcement would be worthy of note even without Fry’s earned reputation for seriousness of purpose and thoroughness of craftsmanship.

One of my first thoughts on reading the news was a hope that Fry might actually play the rôle of Handel in the film, since both his dramatic gifts and his very physicality might be at least as appropriate for the musician as they were for Wilde. But the fact that he broke an arm in Brazil last week might get in the way of that.

The mention of the singer Mrs. Cibber in the Times article reminded me that the revered society figure Mrs. Delany had been one of her defenders. Since student days I have been collecting information on Handel’s London career, trolling through letters and diaries. So I’ll use a coming big movie as an excuse to pass on some of that information. I imagine I’ve covered some of the same ground below that the movie will tread:


In the year ’10 I first saw Mr. Handel who was introduced to my uncle by Mr. Heidegger … We had no better instrument in the house than a little spinet of mine, on which the great musician performed wonders. I was much struck with his playing, but struck as a child, not a judge, for the moment he was gone, I seated myself at my instrument and played the best lessons I had then learnt. My uncle archly asked me if I thought I should ever play as well as Mr. Handel. “If I did not think I should,” cried I, “I would burn my instrument!” Such was the innocent presumption of childish ignorance.

And such were the means whereby one of the most powerful musical personalities of the Western tradition fit himself into the society he aimed at pleasing. And thus, by her own account, began the association between the visiting “composer of Italian musick” and the child who was to become the most admired old lady in England. Mary Granville (later known as Mrs. Pendarves and later still as the celebrated Mrs. Delany) was an intelligent amateur of music, a tireless supporter of Handel’s music in particular, an intimate of the royal family, a friend of Swift in his later years, and—fortunately—an indefatigable and brilliant writer of letters. Through her good offices we have as lucid a description as we could ask of Handel as he appeared to the highest stratum of London society. Much as she was to encounter him over years, and in many situations, it is fitting that her first impression of him was as an inventive performer devising music for the pleasure of the company he found himself in.

Even when Handel was young, Miss Granville found his appearance solemn, resolute, and “greedy” (he was often called gluttonous); he seemed to her unengaging in manners and droll in accent. She, like most of her neighbors, nevertheless found him ultimately irresistible. On the first occasion of their meeting, when he was still in the first flush of his Italian experiences, he must have been at work on Rinaldo (“the first opera that ever he made in England”), and had only just begun his temporary role as a fashionable novelty in the capital. Unlike myriad other short-term foreign favorites of the leisure classes, he would convert his celebrity into something more lasting. The lady would later know enough to take sides intelligently in the rivalry between Handel and Buononcini, among others, while the sideline skeptics recited this markedly unprophetic jingle:

Some say, compared to Buononcini,
That Mynheer Handel’s but a Ninny;
Others aver that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a Candel.
Strange, all this Difference should be
‘Twixt Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

All things connected with Mynheer Handel took on a certain interest for society. It even surpassed the craze for keeping up with the leading Italian singers, although Mrs. Delany, in a letter to her sister, is interested (with a type of curiosity that Handel himself always managed to keep at bay) in the very private affairs of Cussoni, the soprano:

Mrs. Sandoni [Cussoni’s married name] is brought to bed of a daughter: it is a mighty mortification it was not a son. The moment she was brought to bed she sung La Speranza, a song in Otho … Mrs. Leigh is transported with joy at living once again in dear London and hearing Mr. Handel’s new opera performed by Faustina, Cuzzoni, and Senesino.

(The respectable Mrs. Delany’s minute interest in the stars was not merely that of a pharisee or scandal-monger. Hearing the notorious adultress Mrs. Cibber sing “He was despised” in the first London performance of Messiah, the pious lady exclaimed, “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven!”)

From our voluble correspondent we also learn that not all of society was equally charmed by the immensely influential entertainment based on popular tunes, The Beggar’s Opera. It not only “made [librettist] Gay rich and [impresario] Rich gay,” but exerted a momentous influence on the career of every London opera composer and a determinative one on that of Handel in encouraging his historic turn to oratorios. At the end of January she is noncommittal: “I have not seen it, but everybody that has seen it says it is very comical and full of humour.” And later: “I dined with the family of Peytons and Dashwoods … We were very merry, and sung the Beggar’s Opera.” Later, she grew much more rigid in her nonapproval, even disapproval, of Rich’s gaiety:

Yesterday I was at the rehearsal of the new opera composed by Handel: I like it extremely, but the taste of the town is so depraved, that nothing will be approved of but the burlesque. The Beggar’s Opera entirely triumphs over the Italian one …

There was no mistaking that the ballad opera was to be blamed for the decline of her beloved opera:

The [Italian] Opera will not survive after this winter: I wish I was a poet worthy the honour of writing its elegy. [And, anticipating a line of many later writers on music:] I am certain, excepting some few, the English have no real taste for musick; for if they had, they could not neglect an entertainment so perfect in its kind for a parcel of ballad singers. I am so peevish about it, that I have no patience.

Finally, her bitterness incited her to an uncharacteristic flash of sarcasm. To her sister: “I desire you will introduce the Beggar’s Opera at Gloucester, you must sing it everywhere but at church, if you have a mind to be like the polite world.” (Note how casually it was assumed that a theater piece’s popularity would have the natural result of its music being incorporated into private social occasions.)

Was Mrs. Delany being the indefatigable and enlightened patroness of superior music, or was she merely championing something that fit her image of “high tone” over the less elevated songs of Lucy Lockit and the Ladies of the Town? In contrasting the depravity of English taste to Mr. Handel’s Italian opera, she may of course have been betraying a prejudice for the fashionable and foreign. Was Handel’s music superior, furthermore, because a man of his stature had produced it, or did the nobility of the music make Handel a respected “gentleman,” as most musicians were not? The fact is indubitable that Handel did have a social position unusual for a man of the theater. It happens that we can reconstruct a political motive for this that is dynastic and imperial in a way almost worthy of Charlemagne’s violent sons.

Even though Handel was a herald of the current Italianate musical manner, there is good reason for a theory that his German background was also of great advantage to his career when first he came to London and an assist likewise to the Hanover monarchs whose imperfectly secure British throne was conceivably buttressed by Handel’s prestige. Under Queen Anne (who came to the throne in 1702 and reigned until 1714), there was great controversy over the Succession. The Whigs (whom the Queen detested on other grounds) were utterly determined that the House of Hanover should succeed to the throne, but there was a very considerable Jacobite party that would risk much to set up the Stuarts again. A main point of contention was, of course, the religious orientation of the monarch, the remaining Stuarts being Catholics; there had been well over a century and a half of sporadic bloodshed over religion, and the country was understandably cautious on the subject. In 1701, the Act of Settlement aimed the succession at the safely Protestant Hanoverians and, in fact, made any “popish” sovereign illegal —even to the present day.

This Act, however, was not universally popular, nor could its supporters be certain of its being put into effect, since the whole succession question had been a matter of pretty constant instability since Henry VIII. Thus it was that the Whigs, a most ingenious Party at the time, began to do anything they could to strengthen the chances of the German dynasty. They initiated friendly and frequent intercourse with Princess Sophia of Hanover, who, had she lived, would have reigned after Anne. Assuming that she might not survive, the Whigs gave equal attention to her son George.

In 1706, the Whig cabinet even went so far as to persuade the easily-swayed Queen to create George’s son (the future George II) Duke of Cambridge. In doing this, the Whigs had at least three motives: to give a Hanoverian an indisputably English dukedom and the air of legitimacy thus lent; to attempt, vainly, to persuade the young George to take his seat in the House of Lords to speak for his family’s interests, thus helping to assure their future possession of the kingdom; and to further their own party’s influence over the future monarch. It was about this time (1710) that Handel not only was engaged as Kappellmeister to the Elector of Hanover, but immediately obtained his permission for an English voyage.

Although the advantages to Handel are obvious, biographers have professed wonderment and many questions as regards the Elector’s willingness to part, and so quickly, with such an ornament of his court. In the context of the political climate in the coveted English realm, the answer may seem evident: the advent of a popular figure like Handel (habitually styling himself, in the modish Italian, Maestro di Cappella di S.A.E d’Hanover) could only further the reconciliation of Englishmen to things Hanoverian and thus enhance, in however small a way, the chances of a Georgian dynasty.

If this rather characteristic trick was the intention of George, it must have worked even better than he hoped: he might have done well to send Handel on missions to Boston and Philadelphia. Even if a sort of royal public relations was not his original aim, he could not have asked for more salutary results. From the first days of Handel’s arrival on English soil, he was immediately introduced into an exclusively “Whiggish” society—the society of the very people who had such a stake in the careers of the German princes. He was shown all around London as the illustrious servant of the estimable heir to the throne, and this connection was further imprinted on the popular consciousness (whether Whig or otherwise) by playbills and broadsides for operas and the title pages of published music (for there was a large trade in sheet music arranged from current operas).

When history reports Handel’s returning to Hanover in 1711 only to lodge a successful request for another extended English journey, commentators have been aghast at Handel’s presumption and at the willingness of the Elector to co-operate. This indulgence from a patron of music, a lover of opera, and master of a Handel! How could he allow so valuable a property to return to England to resume his own gradual accession—not without the odd setback—to a kind of artistic kingship, when a word of command from the Elector could have detained him in Hanover as a monopoly of that court? Is anything more likely than that it was this very success in London that persuaded the future king to allow Georg Friedrich to continue to pave the way for Georg von Hannover? As it happened, the Elector did not have to wait long for the rewards of any such shrewd planning. When, in 1714, the death of Queen Anne brought George to London as King, the peacefulness with which this personally unpopular monarch took up the scepter was remarkable.

While we need not be so rash as to insist that a liveried musician single-handedly paved the way to the throne for his master, it is reasonable to observe that George might have succeeded less easily without the reflected glory of an extraordinarily popular figure who was in his loyal service and later enjoyed the marked devotion of his royal family. As on most subjects, we have no political pronouncements recorded from the lips or quill of Handel, but he remained a powerful public force to the end of his days. While not showing consciousness of their political purposes, Handel continued to associate almost exclusively with Whigs throughout his whole English life. If this was because Whigs were the only friends available to a German so close to the court, rather than a deliberate choice on the musician’s part, it even re-enforces the significance. And Handel may have been the only person so tainted who is repeatedly mentioned with approval in the letters and journals of Tories.

The first British historians of music, Burney and Hawkins, were Tory contemporaries of Handel, and this should always be borne in mind when they are consulted. The satires against opera in the Rambler and the Spectator also must be read in this light. (The history of party politics in musical life would be a complete study in itself—Charlemagne’s court, Georgian Britain, and revolutionary France not beginning to exhaust a subject that reaches new intricacy where democratic states take on financial support of art.)

George I and his son, the Prince of Wales, enjoyed an extreme mutual antipathy. The discord may have originated in personal disagreement, but was soon, by 1716, to take on a political guise. The King even placed the Prince under house arrest on one occasion, and the rift was always public and noisy. The Waleses set up a rival court at Leicester House and openly and strenuously consorted with the King’s political enemies. Scarcely could we ask a surer indication of Handel’s political importance than is given in the way the Prince used him. While holding Handel’s muse in high esteem (as his own subsequent reign would demonstrate), the Prince set up a rival opera house, not because of any dissatisfaction with Handel’s productions, but for the reason (then obvious) that setting up a rival theater for the King’s enemies had political effect, both in embarrassing the King, and in forcing all people in public life to take sides in a most unmistakable way. Mrs. Delany wrote to Swift in 1735:

I believe you have had a quiet winter in Dublin; not so has it been with us in London; hurry, wrangling, extravagance and matrimony have reigned with much impetuosity … Our operas have given much cause of dissension; men and women have been deeply engaged; and no debate in the house of Commons has been urged with more warmth; the dispute of the merits of the composers and singers is carried to so great a height, that it is much feared, by all true lovers of music, that operas will be quite overturned. I own I think we make a very silly figure about it.

Clearly, some of this “wrangling” was motivated by matters artistic. People seem to be at their most fierce in contention over any of the aforementioned quartet of art, politics, sex, and religion. When the first two are combined, no one is safe.

The Prince of Wales, with malice toward his parents, set up rivals to Handel, while the King and Queen were consistently loyal to their old servant. The Prince of Wales’s faction was the stronger for a time, the King and Queen, with amazing determination, sitting in a half-filled house to hear Handel. The King, however, did admit that “he did not think setting oneself at the head of a faction of fiddlers was a very honourable occupation for people of quality.” In the meantime, all members of the royal family, whatever their operatic entourage, continued to patronize Handel quite demonstratively outside the theater: the young princesses, daughters of the Prince, would go in some state to hear Handel play the organ at St. Paul’s. He was their music master.

If Handel was a tool for political machination, he did not suffer for it in the long run, nor was it left to a fickle public to reward him. The longevity and extent of the monetary gifts, both from the electoral purse and the royal one, have often given occasion for comment; and, even though the eighteenth century did more than any other to clutter up Westminster Abbey with tombs, it was still a great honor for a non-native musician to be buried there, and under such a notable monument. The royal family’s gratitude extended even to their fourth generation; and, appropriately enough, Handel’s music manuscripts and harpsichord eventually devolved to the King after his death—to the first King George, in fact, who approached Handel in popularity, the latterly unhappy George III.

It may be said that Handel’s rising above the usual fate of the musician under private patronage broke the mold for that ancient pattern. He and the brilliant and constantly advancing cosmopolitanism of eighteenth-century London helped make it possible for a musician to live differently thereafter. (He was the first composer in Europe to achieve his degree of acknowledged greatness in his lifetime. In this he made straight the way for Gluck and Haydn, who also lived to see themselves idolized. There can be no doubt that Haydn’s celebrity at London and Oxford involved nostalgia for Handel.)

It was not solely Handel’s personal popularity that insinuated him into the challenging society he found in London, nor was his more public rôle in national life by any means limited to partisan politics. There were some prevalent myths of Hanoverian England, now little understood, that Handel—whether wittingly or not—played into perfectly. One of these has to do with the appropriation of Hebrew lore to national purposes. Handel gave much of his best attention to Old Testament texts in his English works. Messiah is the only oratorio with New Testament texts, and not one of Handel’s English works for Protestant services is based on a New Testament text. It has been implied that this behavior may mark Handel as a less-than-convinced Christian, which provides as good an example as any of the folly of judging a historical character’s (or our next-door neighbor’s) interior disposition by his harmless outward behavior. A successful performing musician must be substantially the creature of his audience.

In his early career, Handel had, like any Lutheran composer, composed a German Passion. It is, of course, conceivable that his convictions changed as he grew older. Some loose commentary has gone so far as to call him a Pantheist, which would not only have been no disgrace but would have put him in the Romantic vanguard; but if that were so, his abiding claims to be a devout Protestant amount to hypocrisy, which is less admirable. One writer even says he fell into a Catholic love with the Virgin Mary when he was in Rome—this on the basis of his very eloquent but conventional setting of the antiphon Salve Regina! We are observing here the dangers of a variety of history-writing that has been called the “personalist fallacy.” Since he composed Lutheran Passions, Catholic motets, and Anglican psalms, all with his accustomed persuasive style, we need not feel that this betrays an unnatural partiality to each of them, accompanied by a series of changes of heart. We might as well accuse this versatile professional of megalomania in Giulio Cesare, tree-worship in Serse, and transsexual tendencies when he validly expresses feminine psychology. He was simply able to adapt with admirable elasticity: the occasion is in control. In a man of the theater this is no vice, and it applied both to the very purposes for his works and to details of their composition.

Handel’s aptitude for useful change may seem less remarkable to us if we also keep in mind that the man had, in other areas of his life, submitted to—and flourished under—the most extreme alterations in external circumstances. Starting out in a Halle home with no musical pretensions, he trains as a church musical director and composer. He then heads off to the operatic center at Hamburg, where he adjusts to a whole new atmosphere and style. Having mastered this, he moves on to Italy, where it was said he would go immediately to the best church organ in each town he visited, dazzle everyone with his fertility of invention and the Germanic keyboard skill relatively rare in Italy, and proceed to learn all he could before moving on. As we know, he carried all this cosmopolitan accumulation of knowledge to England, where he ran rehearsals in Italian, wrote letters of business in French, kept up his court contacts in German, and endured the teasing of London social beings for his individual way with English. That he successfully cultivated, once he came to London, a musical manner as English as that of Purcell is impressive but of a piece with everything else we know about him. And he started right away. It was a court Ode of 1710, written for Queen Anne, that showed his quick study of Purcellian style, brought his first distinctively English success, and bagged him his first annuity from the Crown.

Until comparatively recently there has been a vast preserve of sentimentalism attached to Handel scholarship. There was in it a reverent refusal to defile the master by considering him in his true social context; or, as in later writers otherwise disposed, there may not have been sufficient knowledge of English theatrical, musical, and ceremonial usages. For example, in Handel’s day, most English churchfolk “attended service” on Sundays by going to Mattins and Evensong. These services, like the monastic Hours from which they ultimately derive, revolve around scripture reading and the singing of psalms. There was little occasion for setting New Testament texts to music; so Handel merely joins Purcell and innumerable other British composers in primarily producing psalms. He did not, therefore, have to resort to his conscience in choosing to set psalms; they were what was needed for morning prayer in the chapel of the Duke of Chandos, for whom he composed most of his non-political service music. (There is, of course, no more explicitly Christian text than Te Deum, of which Handel provided famous settings when he was commanded to do so for State celebrations of the Treaty of Utrecht and of the Dettingen victory.)

The liturgical need for psalmody, however, accounts for only a fraction of the settings by Handel of texts from the Hebrew and on original texts to Old Testament subjects. It is in the oratorios, and no less in the Coronation anthems, that Handel both shows the effect of peculiarly English societal influence, and profoundly affects and exploits social expectations and needs on a basic level. It has been well documented by literary historians that the English profoundly identified their country with the pre-Christian Hebrew nation. Not only was it easy to think of the sovereign in terms of the kings Saul and Solomon, not only could a blind Samson later be naturally linked to the beloved and sightless George III (who, in his later years of insanity, used to ask that the section of Samson that referred to the hero’s blindness and impotence be played), but the whole national destiny was commonly held to be comparable to that announced to Israel by the prophets. There were even theories around that the English represented the lost tribes of Israel. It was a peculiar result of the British Reformation; no Continental movement had this effect. The Lutheran reform was primarily Christocentric and Pauline; and the Calvinist one, while quite wrapped up in Old Testament law and lore, had no strong, long-term nationalistic origin and consciousness to partake of the Jewish theocratic tradition.

English kings have customarily been crowned by the premier archbishop of the land, who represents God on such occasions in, at least ceremonially, a very prophet-like way. (It has been suggested that, besides their constitutional monarch, the British have set up a constitutional God.) The very word coronation somewhat misplaces the emphasis, since England maintained the medieval idea that the vital action was the anointing of the monarch with oil, as the archbishop reminds the people that he does so after the example of Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet (no one needing to be reminded of Samuel’s anointing of kings Saul and David). A people who take this symbolism to heart understandably chose as one of their favorite compositions of Handel the anthem on the text:

Zadok the priest and Nathan the Prophet anointed Solomon King. And all the people rejoiced and said:
“God save the King;
Long live the King;
May the King live for ever.
Hallelujah, Amen!”

Before the Reformation, saints’ names were given at baptism; by the seventeenth century, much more common names in England were Jeremiah, David (not necessarily for the Patron of Wales), Jonathan, Esther, Sarah, Deborah, etc. Out of this milieu—and using many of these very names—Handel built on such identification of England with Israel to produce one of the most phenomenal musico-sociological developments in history: the Handelian oratorio.

Handel resorted to oratorios only after he had been forced by economic necessity to put operas on the back burner (not that he was poor, but that opera depletes even princely purses). Rather as Hannibal had cherished a favorite goal and—in elephants—a favorite, if farfetched, means of obtaining it, Handel knew what he wanted and persisted too long in trying to achieve it via operas. It really was not the way to the hearts of the proto-bourgeois British society. The phenomenon of the oratorios resulted from a convergence of patriotic, literary, and religious factors with the highly developed international musical vocabulary of the late Baroque. It is not just that Handel was able to take the Italo-Franco-Germanic musical tradition, insert English texts and a little of the indigenous declamatory principles, and become a sort of walking British triumphal arch of music. For, although there was a generous amount of shrewd purposefulness in Handel’s development into accommodation of his English public, there is equal evidence that he substantially became one of those Englishmen, whom otherwise he swayed as a benevolent musical monarch.

He was genuinely interested in their literature: he read Robinson Crusoe and the other new books. He subscribed to the publications of various provincial composers whose compositions could scarcely have held any interest for him and certainly no instruction—unless, that is, he had a sincere curiosity about indigenous details of the host culture and its tastes. He showed concern about the nation’s social problems, faithfully attended the church established by Parliament, and became a legal subject of its sovereign in 1726. These extra-musical factors could not have failed to impress a public who had grown accustomed to the musical carpetbaggers from other nations who came to London (or Jerusalem, as it is referred to in the Coronation Service) to scoop up what money was to be made from their own “exotick” music—and then leave.

If there are skeptics who doubt the sincerity of a nation who found Israel in Egypt descriptive of her past tribulations, or readily accepted Judas Maccabaeus as prototypical of her own king’s victory over the Stuarts, let them only remember the stanza of a national anthem (written during Handel’s London years) that instructs the Deity, an unmistakably English and Protestant God, to

Scatter our enemies,
And make them fall.
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks.
On thee our hopes we fix;
God save us all!

“Handel’s final achievement, which contributed more than anything else to his lasting fame, was the creation of the English oratorio.” This is the just opinion of one of the latest biographers, but why should it be so? True, the Italians had come up with something fine in inventing the oratorio, and the British did well to acquire their own version of it. But the inherent excellence of the medium does not explain the importance habitually attributed to the development. The English of the 1580’s had likewise adopted and adapted the similarly important Italian madrigal without creating much subsequent excitement among anyone except amateur madrigalians (a hardy lot) or academic specialists (less robust, perhaps, but dogged). As so often happens, a little historical imagination clears up the question.

The musical Renaissance did not depend upon any particular form of music; the Baroque movement, on the other hand, needed music drama—the operatic impulse—for its realization and extension throughout Europe. Opera was the ideal form for the birth, growth, and dissemination of the new musical spirit. (It also seemed to serve less exalted needs in people. Such tales as even Mrs. Delany served up about Cussoni and Faustina should serve to remind us that the most famous figures in eighteenth-century music were not the people we most remember today; they were the vocal virtuosi—especially the castrati —of the opera stage. Handel’s professional association with them did him no harm in his becoming the most famous non-singer among the musicians of the earth. But, as if to show that performance was still dominant over composition—and that musicians who were composers had no monetary motive to specialize in writing—opera composers could count on payment only for the performances of their works in which they performed. If Graun performed a work of Mattheson, it was Graun, not Mattheson, who got paid.)

Why would opera serve any less well for England (or at least less completely) than for Italy or Austria? Mrs. Delany, in her gossipy way, tells of some of the reasons; and Addison, Steele and others alternately rant on about or insinuate others. A visit to a London theater was all it took to align them and many of their contemporaries with the ultimate Handelian oratorio innovations (which they sometimes seemed to think had been their idea, so completely did they approve of Handel’s reforms and inventions), and we can perhaps do no better than to imitate them in our own historical imagination:


You and I are two members of the aristocracy going together to the King’s Theatre on January 16, 1739. You are an enthusiast for “the dramatic oratorio,” while I consider myself loyal to the Italian opera. This taste is partly to be accounted for by the fact that I am a military man and have been very little in London during recent years. I am thus reluctant to credit your claims for the new entertainments. It took more than your enthusiasm to persuade me to come. The King’s is a very superior place to see and be seen, and it will do me good for the Duke of Cumberland, my commanding officer, to notice me there.

You tire me a little with your zeal, because you have been at the rehearsal two mornings earlier in Mr. Handel’s house in Brook Street and can talk of nothing else. The new work, the oratorio of Saul, has not been presented before. Although we enter the theater in good time (it had been my habit and principle to miss the overture and preliminary recitative in Italian operas), the room is nearly full. I was last in this house for Ariodante in 1736. I was outraged on that occasion, because the main reason I had come was to see the ballets, but Mr. Handel had lost his French corps by then and there was no dancing. You assure me there will be no dancing tonight, which helps account for my reluctance to attend. I can’t help noticing a material change in the audience since my last visit. The mercantile classes have definitely invaded the place. Not that I have any unalterable prejudice against them (if anything, they behave and dress better than the landed classes who have pretty much maintained opera), but it certainly gives the whole scene a festively earnest tone, whereas the theater used to be more earnestly festive.

Not only are stalls, gallery, and boxes well attended, but the stage and orchestra pit are thickly populated with performers, this new work evidently requiring quite large forces. (I see two harpsichords, two chamber organs, and some big lutes). Of course the performers are eager to be in place for the entrance of the principals—by which I naturally mean the members of the Royal Family. You and I have the third box from them, and you whisper in my ear that I will hardly be able to distinguish them from the prosperous merchants across from us. This oratorio fashion certainly appears to have dangerous levelling tendencies. When the King enters, no one bows lower than Mr. Handel, who rises from his instrument before anyone else has even spotted the monarch. Everyone knows the bow is as much from friendship as from policy. And one almost feels that the ruler’s smile of pleasure is partly in thanks to Mr. Handel for gathering all these well-scrubbed, cheerful and prosperous subjects to sit around their King like a properly regulated family and listen with him to the music of his favorite musician. The theater never used to be such a respectable place, certainly.

On second glance, I note that what I thought were two instruments are only one. Mr. Handel is seated before a somewhat bizarre instrument that is half organ, half harpsichord. It will keep him from having to choose which instrument to sit at all evening or from having to move his corpulent frame about the pit excessively. I don’t know if his tastes take a technological turn in general, but you have spoken with much animation of another new instrument we are to hear tonight, a “carillon,” made of small bells played by means of a keyboard. The opera, I grumpily observed, got along very well without newfangled tricks and baubles like this. I suspect that, without the Italian castrati to insure gossip among the public, Mr. Handel is promoting curiosity by these new instruments. And what, I can’t help wondering, will this new music sound like? Half the audience seems to be in on the secrets that are behind your own smug smile, and are already determined to enjoy themselves (they can’t all have been at the rehearsal?).

Mr. Handel looks around the musicians’ pit to see if they are all ready to play the overture. He adopts a posture of what you have called “good-humored autocracy,” smiling merrily at the wind band while never leaving off his quick glances of authority over the whole production. As his hands descend to the keyboard and his wig descends to signal the first chord of the overture, the immediate impression on my uninitiated ears is of a fullness of sound that I had not expected. The overture sounds not completely unlike those of the operas, but has a likeness also to some that I heard in Paris, played by the musicians of the French court. I quickly reckon that the gravity and fullness is accounted for both by the increased size of the orchestra and by the use of that battery of continuo instruments played by all the several keyboard and lute performers. While sounding unmistakably theatrical, the organs blend the sound together in a way that also sounds far from the triviality often associated with these theaters—though its solemnity is not at all reminiscent of church, either.

The overture is certainly impressing me. There is a grandeur about it that is very original without being what one would call exotic. But I am completely won over by what follows. I had assumed that the use of this new carillon maggot would be saved to rescue the evening as ennui set in later. But the overture is immediately succeeded by the most charming, lightly dancing tune played by the carillon and orchestra, and—as the word-book that my man bought for me this morning in Paul’s Churchyard informs me—represents the dance-music of the daughters of Israel as Saul returns home victorious. The ear is charmed and the intellect is satisfied by the union of words and music that illustrate the scene from sacred history. The boys of the Chapel Royal, combined with those of Paul’s, sing “Welcome, welcome, mighty king!” and the dance rhythms infect my spirit, if not my feet. They sing in the most delightful manner, in English that we could all follow perfectly well without the pamphlets we brought with us, and there is perfect decorum in the whole presentation.

The entrancing music lulls us so that we are utterly unprepared for the stroke that follows. The praises of Saul have seemed sufficient in extent and quality, but when those of David are added to them, all the men of the choir join in as well, and the effect is that of a dramatic shock that the pleasant tune lauding Saul has left us unprepared for. David’s “ten thousand praises” dwarf even Saul’s aforementioned thousands. And we easily see why Saul can then launch into such a distressed arioso: “What do I hear? Am I then sunk so low to have this upstart boy preferred before me?” No longer need we spend our evenings in the theater making shrewd guesses at the complicated motivations of Italianate characters. We are well acquainted with Saul, we know what it is to be jealous, and we are completely aware of what the music means to portray. A sensation of intense pleasure rises within us, and we all feel involved in the drama, inspirited by the music, and that we ourselves can in some way be personally proud of this new species of entertainment so comprehensible, so refined, so virtuous, and so British.

And, through it all, Mr. Handel is manipulating his own instruments as he eagerly surveys the whole; filling in here, ornamenting there, he is putting the finishing touches on this evening’s performance with his own chubby hands, and before our eyes. One feels acutely that this performance is just for tonight, just for this assemblage, that the inspiration somehow rises corporately from all of us.


Something like this is what seems to have occurred in the theater when the oratorio moved in on the opera’s turf. Even Handel could never have predicted the longevity of its success and influence. The sociology of European music has nothing else quite like it.

It may be surprising and it may be dispiriting to the biographer that Handel managed, throughout all these high goings-on to avoid all hint of personal scandal. In this he is not a man of the eighteenth century so much as he seems to anticipate the tastes (at least on the surface) of his future Victorian votaries. Few of his highly-placed contemporaries, either in the theater or politics, managed it. While his theatrical colleagues continually tottered on the brink—at best—of “lewd Scandal,” Handel was a paragon of the virtuous and honorable unmarried gentleman, without ever having seemed prudish. He had the attractive gift of being racy and irreproachable at the same time. If such reputation excites the habitual suspicion of our age, it should in fact excite our gratitude, for he otherwise would not have been received in Mrs. Delany’s house or figured so prominently in her writing. Imagine the fascination for a woman of quality and virtue, who has been warned since childhood against the iniquity of personages connected with the stage, to find one who could with perfect respectability provide access to that dazzling world. (It is not incidental that most of the other operatic stars had, furthermore, belonged to a dangerous “papistical” Church.)

Not that the fascinating perils of the theater were limited to its performers. In a circumstantial description of an unwanted proposal of marriage, the widowed Mrs. Pendarves gives us a fragmentary addition to our knowledge of what went on in boxes at eighteenth-century operas. While Senesino the castrato was cavorting on the stage as Giulio Cesare, Lord Baltimore stood behind Mrs. Pendarves’s chair and declared his love. “I was in such confusion,” she wrote in her autobiography, “I knew not what I saw or heard for some time, but finding he was going on with the same subject, I softly begged he would not interrupt my attention to the Opera, as, if he had anything to say to me, that was not the proper place.” One wonders how common were young ladies who would even pretend to put off the “American Prince” for the sake of an opera.

There were other instances of romance in the audience rivalling that on the stage. Opera had many social uses:

The piece of news talked of is Lady Fanny Pierpoint’s walking off with Mr. Meadows at last. I was at the opera at Lincoln’s Inn last Tuesday: she was there (she was of age the day before), and Mr. Meadows sat at some distance from her in the box before me. At the end of the first act she went out under pretence of being sick. A young lady—Miss Wortley, daughter to Lady Mary—went out with her, and returned in a quarter of an hour. Mr. Meadows stayed some time, and then marched off. Most people guessed what they were at; but dull I, who minded the musick, made no reflection on what passed.

It must have required extraordinary dullness indeed to resort to listening to music at an opera.

To catch music and musicians of the past exerting their influence on people and society, we can look in corners that we would not readily think of today. In eighteenth-century London, attendance of theatrical rehearsals was a frequent daytime occupation. Mrs. Delany was admitted to Handel’s house, for instance, to hear a rehearsal of Alcina. “Strada has a whole scene of charming recitative; there are a thousand beauties.” That day she thought Handel, playing continuo, looked like “a necromancer” (this before he lost his eyesight and must indeed have looked abstracted as he played and conducted). Later, the rehearsals of oratorios were also sought out, and Mrs. Delany spoke with much animation of a rehearsal of Judas Maccabaeus. Handel’s very popular sacred music was not exempt:

Mrs. Percival invited us to dine with her [which implied an afternoon meal], and to go in the morning [meaning before-dinner, i.e., “matinee” afternoon hours] to Whitehall Chapel to hear Mr. Handel’s new Te Deum [the Dettingen] rehearsed … It is excessively fine, I was all in rapture, and so was your friend D.D. [The Reverend Dr. Delany], as you may imagine; everybody says it is the finest of his compositions.

Although these jaunts were clearly primarily social events, one wonders how much the success or failure of a work depended on the impressions of the rehearsals, somewhat in the manner of today’s Broadway “previews.” We also might be curious as to how these rehearsals were carried on. How was the exclusive audience’s presence acknowledged? Was refreshment served? Mrs. Delany was of the prevailing attitude of approval of the oratorios, in any case; after Handel died and was no longer a living social fixture, she was transported by Judith (conducted by Dr. Arne) at the Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769.

Mrs. Delany’s estimation of Handel is the more valuable for the fact of her continual exposure to all the other kinds of music and performers that trooped through London (which was then twice the size of any other European capital). Arbaces was an opera “pretty enough, but not to compare to Handel’s compositions.”

Yesterday I dined at Mrs. Percival’s, and in the afternoon Phil and I went to the oratorio at Lincoln’s Inn, composed by Porpora, an Italian famous for church musick, who is now in England: it is a fine solemn piece of musick …God is addressed in the most solemn manner … but they say it is not equal to Mr. Handel’s oratorios of Esther or Deborah … They wear their stays extravagantly low, their sleeves very short and wide, petticoats short, English dormeuses, and the girdle not in the least peaked down.

We thus see that, no matter how important was oratorio, fashion in dress could be similarly regarded, fit for the same context, and spoken of in the same tone.

We are further indebted to Mrs. Delany for a glimpse of the titanic musical personality at a private musical gathering. She gave, in the spring of 1734, a party that included about a dozen people besides Handel (although this does not count the servants; habitual occupants of the special “footmen’s gallery” at the theaters sometimes became as operatically avid and well-informed as their masters). A very Gershwin could hardly have surpassed him in this context. In the most agreeable of moods, Handel accompanied everyone present who considered himself a singer, played various solo pieces, and extemporized at length. And on another occasion: “Mr. Handel was in the best humour in the world, and played lessons [i.e., solo keyboard pieces] and accompanied Strada and all the ladies [as distinct from opera women] that sang from seven o’clock till eleven.” (As has happened before, the socially acceptable Handel is given his title, but a pre-eminent opera star is just “Strada.”)

If Handel disliked playing at such a party of amateurs, it does not seem to have been evident to the usually perceptive Mrs. Delany, though there is no blindness-breeding vanity like musical vanity. On other occasions Handel obliged her by performing overtures to his operas on her drawing-room harpsichord. Today it seems a little inappropriate to have continually importuned one of the greatest virtuosi of his time with requests for selections from operas and oratorios, but this reflected, among other things, a certain at-home indifference to medium that would last through Liszt and Busoni. Any musical material was fair game for any social purpose it fit or could be made to fit. People who had no phonographs played whatever they wanted to hear on whatever instrument was at hand: ” … Grace went to the harpsichord, but could play nothing but anthems, and those horribly … ” Similar temerity (perhaps recalling the young Mary’s confidence in 1710) attends another revealing instance of her interchanges with Handel. She submitted a libretto to the composer, which he never used:

As they [Joseph, Samuel, Messiah] have taken very well I fancy Handel will have a second subscription,—and how do you think I have been lately employed? Why, I have made a drama for an oratorio out of Milton’s Paradise Lost, to give Mr. Handel to compose to; it has cost me a great deal of thought and contrivance. D.D. approves of my performance, and that gives me some reason to think it not bad, though all I had to do has been collecting and making the connection between the fine parts. I begin with Satan’s threatenings to seduce the woman … I hope to prevail with Handel to set it without having any of the lines put into verse, for that will take from his dignity.

It is perhaps less curious that she tried to get in on Handel’s creative act than that, with her knowledge and taste, she had tolerated so many of his opera librettos of mean literary merit. Her beloved Italian operas were sometimes set to the most patently inconsequential texts—though many of them had virtues of their kind, too. It was Handel’s glory that his music supplied the lacks of the verses:

To Mynheer Handel next you run,
Who artfully will pare and prune
Your words to some Italian tune.

That rhyme contains more truth than it perhaps was meant to communicate. For those tunes that Handel came up with often were not just melodies “in the Italian style” but previously existing “Italian tunes”—although he would pick up useful material without respect to national origin. The embarrassment that used to attend musicological recognition of this “larceny” melts away when we consider Handel more in the light of an improvising performer who composed than as a composer of the more recent mold. To the born-and-bred improvisor, the material on which he bases the performance, far from being stolen, is being honored by its use. It is literally being “ornamented” or “elaborated.” Winton Dean has even said that live, improvisatory performance was so much a part of Handel’s makeup that he required some pre-exiting musical material “to give his imagination a boost before the engine would start.” One of Handel’s contemporaries said he started with coals and made them into diamonds.

If the nonchalant style of the eighteenth-century amateuse might cause us to overlook the value of Mrs. Delany’s details, other diarists and letter-writers are far less analytic. But they—because they are more typical—are illustrative, in another way, of the musical ambience of the time and place. For example, two brief, typical references to Handel are to be found in the letters of Lady Mary Wortley-Montague, and an aria of Handel figures in one of her more succulent morsels:

I can’t tell whither you know a Tall, musical, silly, ugly thing, niece to Lady Essex Roberts, who is call’d Miss Leigh. [Walpole describes Miss Leigh as “a virtuosa, a musician, a madwoman,” who was in love with Handel and wore his picture, along with the Pretender’s, on her breast—her madness consisting, no doubt, partly in such impossible political promiscuity.]”

She went a few days ago to visit Mrs. Betty Titchburne:

Enter Edgcombe, who appear’d frighted at the sight of a third person. Miss Titchburne told him almost at his Entrance that the Lady he saw there was a perfect mistriss of music, and as he passionately lov’d it she thought she could not oblige him more than by desiring her to play. Miss Leigh very willingly sat to the Harpsicord, upon which her Audience decamp’d to the Bed Chamber, and left her to play over 3 or 4 lessons to her selfe. They return’d, and made what excuses they could, but said very frankly they had not heard her performance and begg’d her to begin again, which she comply’d with, and gave them the opertunity of a second retirement. Miss Leigh was by this time all Fire and Flame to see her heavenly Harmony thus slighted, and when they return’d told them she did not understand playing to an empty room. Mr. Edgecombe begg’d ten thousand pardons, and said if she would play Godi [doubtless the popular aria “Gode l’alma” from Handel’s Ottone, performed in 1723, 1726, and 1727], it was a Tune he dy’d to hear, and it would be an Obligation he should never forget. She made answer, she would do him a much greater Obligation by her Absence, which she suppos’d was all that was wanting at that Time, and run down stairs in a great Fury, to publish as fast as she could, and was so indefatigable in this pious design that in 4 and twenty hours all the people in Town had heard the story, and poor Edgcombe met with nothing where ever he went but complements about his third Tune, which is reckon’d very handsome in a Lover past forty.

Similarly, the second example, both in its offhand manner and the nature of its sentiment could scarcely be more unlike Mrs. Delany:

… I may pass the Xmas Holidays at Paris.
Adieu, Dear Sister.
The new Opera is execrable.

Thus, with a casual postscript, Lady Mary disposes of Tamerlano, one of Handel’s most successful operas.

As is well known, however, Handel’s legend, far from dying with him, seemed only to increase with the years. The name of the composer Handel prospered as that of the wizardly performer gradually and understandably diminished in the public awareness. (It is difficult to retain interest in a performer that one has no hope of hearing, relying only on the word—however glowing —of others.)

A representative, though eminent, instance of this posthumous appeal to Handel as a sort of recognized standard occurs in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. Mr. Wilfer, loathe to speak ill of his wife, compares her to a thing—good in itself —that may find itself in situations where it is out of place (and, in so doing, shows a fine awareness of music’s “occasional” nature):

Supposing that a man had to go through life, we won’t say with a companion, but we’ll say to a tune. Very good. Supposing that the tune allotted to him was the Dead March in [Handel’s] Saul. Well. It would be a very suitable tune for particular occasions—none better—but it would be difficult to keep time with in the ordinary run of domestic transactions. For instance, if he took his supper after a hard day to the Dead March in Saul, his food might be likely to sit heavy on him. Or, if he was at any time inclined to relieve his mind by singing a comic song or dancing a hornpipe, and was obliged to do it to the Dead March in Saul, he might find himself put out in the execution of his lively intentions.

Our Mutual Friend, generally reckoned Dickens’s masterpiece, was also his last completed novel. At his funeral, as the dead march sounded through the Abbey, his body was carried by mourning Englishmen to a tomb that was not only of fitting distinction but had room for another coffin in it. Dickens was buried with Handel. One idol of the nineteenth-century middle class was laid by another.


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