The Garden of Good and Evil

February 2, 2012

Handel, unbewigged and otherwise in accord with the (un)dress code of the 18th-century Vauxhall Gardens

One of the obituaries of Gustav Leonhardt last month cited his lack of enthusiasm for one of the Baroque greats, George Frideric Handel. In explanation for such dissent from the prevailing opinion among musicians, Leonhardt cited the fact that Handel was too much controlled by public taste. One wonders if the famously upright Dutchman had more in mind than musical style, for one of the composer’s haunts — one that was part and parcel with his reputation among and interaction with the public of his time — was the pleasure park at London’s Vauxhall, where gustatory and even sexual pleasures could be mixed with some of the best public music-making of the day. While such a scene ill accords with the image most of us have of the composer of Messiah, it is an undeniable feature of Handel’s career and one that has led to a fascinating book exploring the ins and outs, the bright lights and (literal) dark passages that made for the long fame of the Vauxhall Gardens. Readers active in, or simply interested in, large-scale production of entertainment or the practicalities of what is nowadays called “the hospitality industry” could still learn something from the vast scale and renowned efficiency of those Gardens (where a sudden order for four hundred roast chickens could suddenly arrive in the kitchens).

The best treasures in the account, however, await the reader interested in cultural history and the history of manners. The Yale University Press published it, and The Times Literary Supplement reviews it.

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