This edited article about G F Handel originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 668 published on 2 November 1974.
The two men had fallen out and it was certainly not Handel’s fault. His so-called friend, Mattheson, was jealous of his success, and one night at the opera house in Hamburg, the young musicians came to blows in the orchestra pit.
No one knows the immediate cause of the fight, but the audience was delighted, especially when the quarrel was continued that night in 1704 out in the Goose-market before a cheering crowd. But now it was getting more serious for swords were drawn. After blows had been exchanged Mattheson’s sword struck a hard metal coat button and the sword splintered in his hand.
It was the end of the duel, which was just as well, for if it had struck a little higher, we would have had no Messiah, no Water Music, no Music for the Royal Fireworks and many other much-loved pieces.
But what has this quarrel between two Germans got to do with the very British Georgians? The answer is simple. Handel, born in Germany in 1685, the same year as that other master musician, Johann Sebastian Bach, was to become a naturalised Briton, as British as roast beef. And, as we shall see, his influence on British music was colossal.
Rumour has it that Handel’s Aunt Anna got him off to a good musical start by smuggling a clavichord (a predecessor of the piano) into the attic of his home in Halle, Saxony, when he was six years old. Father, a barber-surgeon at a time when the two professions were often one, disapproved of music and musicians and wanted his son to be “respectable” like himself. Fortunately, when the boy was seven, a duke heard him play the organ and persuaded the reluctant Handel senior to allow him to study music officially and away from the attic.
By the time he was 17, Handel had produced his first opera, Almira, in Hamburg, and eight years later, he took leave of his current position as Director of Music to the Elector of Hanover to try his luck in London. In 1714, the Elector became King George I of Britain, which is a good moment to meet George Frederick Handel, Georgian.
Musical London was in an odd state when Handel first arrived in the capital in 1710. The British loved music, but their only great composer, Henry Purcell, had died young in 1695. A few years later, Italian opera reached London, not the sort of operas which are still enjoyed all over the world today, written by composers like Verdi and Puccini, but inferior pieces which were simply display vehicles for star singers. People today sometimes say that opera stories are “silly”. They should sample early 18th century ones, where the characters are silly as well, unlike those of later masterpieces. Handel suffered with the rest from ridiculous words to set to music but, fortunately, he was one of the half dozen supreme writers of tunes in history and that carried him to victory.
He made a profound impression on the capital’s knowledgeable music-lovers. He was invited to play in their homes and among his audience one evening was a ten-year-old girl called Mary Granville. In later life, Mary wrote an account of the never-to-be-forgotten occasion.
“We had no better instrument in the house,” she said, “than a little spinet of mine, on which the great musician performed many wonders. I was much struck with his playing. The moment he was gone, I seated myself at my instrument and played the best lesson I had ever learnt.”
Already a much-travelled man, he brought Italian singers to London. His operas were soon all the rage, but he often fell foul of his vain singers. One of them, Cuzzoni, was ill-tempered and ugly but had the voice of an angel and London was to adore her for it. But she only just survived rehearsals for the opera Otho. Handel wanted her to sing one way, she another, until the justly enraged composer threatened to throw her out of the window and actually seized her round the waist. She had met her match, though she still quarrelled with other singers, once having a free fight with a rival, in which the audience joined. Theatre-going could be rough and rowdy in those days.
Handel also triumphed with his orchestral music. Legend has it that he wrote his famous Water Music to mollify the King for his frequent absences from Court duties in Hanover, but legend is wrong. It was first given on the Thames from a special boat moored alongside the Royal Barge, 50 musicians playing the lovely music to the delight not only of the King, but of hundreds of other boats which packed the river. George liked it so much he demanded a repeat after supper.
Years later, in 1748, when Handel was one of the most famous “Britons” of his day, he gave another open air performance, this time to celebrate a peace treaty. This was his Music for the Royal Fireworks in Green Park, where a huge structure was built for the occasion. Twelve thousand people came to the final rehearsal in Vauxhall Gardens, proof of Handel’s fantastic popularity. Then came the big night in front of the King, now George II. A giant firework tableau of George giving Peace to a happy Britannia was an added attraction.
The music was a triumph, but the fireworks, most of which failed to ignite, were not, and the whole stand went up in flames, the “firework” George losing his head.
By now Handel had long ceased to struggle to stage operas in London and had mainly gone over to oratorios, works with soloists, chorus and orchestra, which use texts from the scriptures or ordinary, non-sacred stories; dramatic works which were not staged. Some of his most famous are Israel in Egypt, Judas Maccabaeus, Semele and Samson, though, in fact, these last two are sometimes staged today. Handel was so much a man of the theatre that they require little adapting for the theatre.
The immortal Messiah was first heard in Dublin in 1742. From the beginning, the public loved it, though some over-religious people claimed that it was blasphemous because it used biblical words. Of all his operas and oratorios, it is by far the best known and adored. When he wrote the great Hallelujah Chorus, he said that “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself,” and when George II first heard it, he was so moved that he stood, a tradition now at all performances.
Handel was a likable, kindly man. Like his friend, the artist Hogarth, he did much to help Captain Coram’s home for Foundlings, and was always generous in good causes. In his old age, he went blind and had to dictate his musical ideas to a friend, though he continued playing his concertos in public. He was the lord of British music when he died, and thousands gathered one April day in 1759 to see him buried in Westminster Abbey. “The late great Mr Handel” one paper called him. He had had his disasters in London, lost fortunes as well as made them, but in the end he was beloved, more British than the British themselves, even though he never lost his German accent.
Through no fault of his own, he almost destroyed the music of his adopted land, for so great was his shadow that native composers shrank into insignificance or, worse, wrote pale imitations of the master’s great oratorios. Well into the 19th century, the rot continued, especially as the Victorians loved oratorios because, like Handel’s father, oratorios were “respectable.” Not until the end of the 19th century was great British music reborn. For over a century, the best native music had been simple ballads.
What would Handel have thought about the whole affair? He was a professional and a man who loved his art, and he would surely have been saddened that his beloved adopted country had, musically speaking, been submerged by his talent. Yet what striking proof of his genius that a single man could so dominate not just his own age but the ones that followed.
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