George Frideric Handel

handelIt is intentional that I let my last article on Johann Sebastian Bach be immediately followed by one on Georg Friedrich Handel because both show a striking parallelism at the beginning of their life. Both were born in the same year, 1685, both were of German birth, both commenced their career as organists. On the other hand, their development, the style of their works, diverged substantially from each other. The comparison between these two giants of German art gives us the proof that influences and external circumstances can mould genius into quite different shapes. We see in one, Bach, the plain organist, living in a kind of domestic hermitage, the pure religious trend prevailing during his whole life; in Handel, on the contrary, the smiling sky of Italy beautifying, illuminating his inspirations, making him more attractive to the majority of his contemporaries. England, where Handel resided for nearly fifty years, honored him as her own son, anglicized his name to read George Frederick Handel, and even today his works are predominant in English concert programs. In outward honors, in the recognition by his contemporaries, in the earning of worldly goods there in no doubt that Handel reaped in his day a far richer harvest than Bach.

Receding more and more from their time, however, history is wavering as to whom of the two to grant the palm.

Stolen Practice Hours

Handel was born in Halle on February 23, 1684, to “Doctor” Handel, then 63 years old, barber, surgeon in ordinary and valet-de-chambre to Prince Augustus of Saxony. Georg Friedrich was born a musician and scarcely waited for his emancipation from the nursery to begin the practice of his art. His earliest delight was to play with toy instruments, drums, trumpets, horns and flutes. For a time the old surgeon bore patiently with this childish fancy; but, finding that it was rapidly developing into a passion he grew anxious with regard to its effect upon the future of the young enthusiast whom he had determined to educate for the legal profession. He, therefore, forbade the practice of any kind of music. All musical instruments were put out of reach. He would even avoid all houses in which music was practiced. This was a sore trouble to the child. He was docile and obedient in all matters, but he could not bear the prohibition of his beloved music. As with Bach, the forbidden fruits possessed their irresistible charm for the boy, and he tried to do on the sly what his despotic father had interdicted. By means of some friendly help he managed to obtain possession of a clavichord. He concealed that precious instrument, the precursor of our pianoforte, in a little garret and in stolen hours, while the rest of the household slept, the boy taught himself to play, practicing anything he may have previously heard or inventing little tunes himself.

The keyed instruments of that time were not of the full-toned, sonorous sort with which we are today familiar. The clavichord was a soft-toned instrument, so soft, indeed, that it would be difficult to hear it at any distance. This may account for the boy’s not having been interrupted in his solitary studies, and it is certain that he learned to play in a manner that, considering his years and opportunity, was little short of miraculous.

A visit to the Duke of Sachsen-Weissenfels, undertaken by his father, brought an unexpected turn in the lad’s life. The Duke, after listening to the organ playing of little Georg Friedrich, then not yet eight years old, declared to the father that for such a manifestation of genius the boy ought not to be restrained, but rather encouraged and allowed to study music systematically with the view of devoting his life to it. Old Doctor Handel felt that the Duke was too great a person not to have his own way, and so the law scheme was, temporarily at least, abandoned and the tiny player was informed, to his unbounded delight, that no further opposition would be offered to his natural inclination.

Upon his return to Halle the boy was placed under the organist of the cathedral, Zachan, an enthusiastic young musician of more than average talent (some of his Preludes and Fugues are published in the collection of Breitkopf & Hartel) who taught him to play upon the organ, harpsichord, violin, hautboy and almost every other instrument in common use in the orchestras of the period; he also instructed George in counterpoint and fugue. In that time a conscientious teacher was to his pupil more like a father than a mere instructor. It was not the wholesale commercialized teaching as imparted in our conservatories, where the attention of the pedagogue must be divided between half a dozen or more scholars in the short space of an hour. Zachau devoted to his gifted pupil all his knowledge, his interest, his whole soul. Music of all kinds by all the most famous composers then known was analyzed by master and pupil together, the different styles of the different nations being pointed out and the excellencies and defects of the works clearly shown. Zachau had in his library a collection of scores by various masters, and of many of them he caused Handel to make copies for study. The master would not be satisfied with anything less than one original work every week. These were not mere exercises, but formal compositions – generally a cantata or a motet or sometimes a sonata or a variation. I have dwelt purposely a little longer on these details because there is no doubt in my mind that the solid musical foundation laid by Zachau was more than anything else responsible for the wonderful development of his genius.

The oboe was a favorite instrument with Handel, both then and in after life, and forit he wrote a great deal of his early music while under the tutelage of Zachau.

He had not been quite three years under Zachau when that conscientious man confessed that his pupil knew more than his teacher!

Handel’s Royal Admirers

Acting on the advice of Zachau, Handel started for Berlin in 1696, when he was little more than ten years old. The visit was of importance to him in more than one respect. Berlin was just then the center of German art, and opera especially was in flourishing condition. The Elector Frederick and his wife, Sophia Charlotte, were enthusiastic music lovers, who kept the court continually enlivened with music and dance. By the encouragement which they gave to singers and composers they drew to Berlin some of the most eminent musicians of their time, among them Attilio Ariosti and Giovanne Buononcini had obtained high favor. With both of them Handel soon made intimate acquaintance. Little George delighted the Elector and the Electress by the beauty of his performances, causing some jealousy in Buononcini, while Ariosti conceived an affectionate interest for the youthful prodigy, frequently holding him on his knees for hours together at the harpsichord and imparting to him many valuable hints for his future guidance. Ariosti himself was a brilliant executant on the harpsichord.

So fully was the genius of Handel recognized at the court of Berlin that the Elector offered to take him into his service as one of the musicians of his orchestra. With this in view he proposed to send Handel, at his own expense, to Italy, where he might be perfected under the best masters. This offer was declined by Handel’s father, either on account of his independence of spirit, or because he still cherished a hope of making a lawyer of his son and wished to avoid such an irrevocable step. After the refusal of the Elector’s offer, Handel could not remain in Berlin any longer. He therefore returned to Halle and settled down once more to his musical studies, now left entirely to his own resources.

Handel’s First Appointment

In 1697, Handel being then twelve years old, his father died. The boy entered the University of Halle, but after one year and a half he tired of his purely classical studies, and finally abandoned them. His sense of filial duty had to give way before the irresistible urge of his genius. While he was still studying at the university Handel received his first musical appointment of organist at the Domkirche of Halle. The post was no sinecure, for the holder of it was expected to furnish a great deal of original music for the service of the church, train the choir, keep the instrument in proper order and to play it. For all this the magnificent sum of fifty thalers (about 38 dollars) per annum was offered! Handel probably considered more the artistic advantage of gaining experience in conducting than the actual compensation. The choir was a purely voluntary one, formed of fellow students or friends of Handel whom he would gather together two days a week for practicing both vocal and instrumental church music. The short experience of regular musical work gave him more faith in his own powers, and he resolved to seek a wider field for his enterprise in Hamburg, whither he went in 1703.

This town was at that time in the apogee of its commercial prosperity, possessing a German opera house which rivaled that of Berlin. Handel commenced by entering this threatre as “violino di repieno.” Mattheson writes: “At first he played the ‘violin di repieno’ in the orchestra of the opera house, and he acted the part of a man who did not know how to count five, for he was naturally prone to dry humor. But the harpsichordist being absent, he allowed himself to be persuaded to replace him, and proved himself to be a great master, to the astonishment of everybody, except myself, who had often heard him in private.”

The relation Handel contracted with Mattheson was much to their mutual benefit. Mattheson was a young citizen of Hamburg, a composer, a singer and an actor, very clever on the organ and the harpsichord and afterward a writer of astonishing fertility. Born 1681, he prided himself, when eighty-three years old, on having written as many books upon all sorts of subjects as he had lived years. (The most important are: Critica Musica [1722], Grundlage einer Ehreupforte [1740] and Georg Friedrich Handel [1760].) Many of his works teem with documents on the history of music of that epoch. He had known Handel from his arrival in Hamburg, and they exchanged lessons, Handel teaching Mattheson counterpoint, while Mattheson initiated Handel into the dramatic style. Thus they were bound together by a friendship which, once in its course, nearly came to a tragic conclusion. In 1704 was performed Mattheson’s third opera, Cleopatra, in which the composer himself sang the part of Anthony. After the death of Anthony, Mattheson was accustomed to conduct the remainder of the performance himself. To this the former director, Kaiser, had never made any objection. But young Handel, who was conducting, was less accommodating and bluntly refused to give up the harpsichord when the resuscitated Anthony presented himself. The other was very much irritated at being deprived of his usual privilege as a maestro, and at the end of the representation he overwhelmed Handel with reproaches. His complaints were not received very graciously, and they had scarcely got out of the theatre when the enraged Mattheson administered to the offender a box on the ear. Swords were immediately drawn, and the two angry friends fought there in front of the theatre. Mattheson’s weapon split on a large metal button on the coat of his adversary, and this happy circumstance terminated the combat; whereupon Mattheson exclaimed; “If you break your sword upon your friend you no not injure him so much as if you reconciled,” and they became better friends than ever. There is no question that the intimacy of Handel with the highly gifted Mattheson had a decided influence on his artistic development and achievement.

Handel’s Earliest Opera

Within little more than a week after the termination of this quarrel Handel presented to the world his own opera – the first – Almira, the role of the tenor being performed by Mattheson. The German opera of this period, though based upon Italian models, had shown signs of a certain individuality. Italian opera owed its origin to a series of reunions instituted by enthusiastic music lovers at the house of Giovanne Bardi, Count of Vernio, for the discussion of matters connected with the music of ancient Greece and Rome. The result was the development of the Dramma per Musica through Jacopo Peri (Euridice, 1600), Monteverde (Arianna and Orfeo, 1608). The music of these early works was entirely declamatory and was, one may say, the precursor of the Lyric Drama restored later by Wagner. Cavalli, Cesti and Allesandro Scarlatti relieved the monotony of the continuous recitative with arias; later composers introduced concerted pieces and finali, thus developing the true opera perfected by Cimarosa and Mozart. German composers first imported dramatic music from Italy and then produced it for themselves.

When Handel produced Almira the lyric drama was in a transitional condition. In Hamburg opera was performed in a mixture of German and Italian. The same was the case in France and England. Almira was a work of this class. Its libretto contained fifteen Italian airs and forty-four German songs translated by Faustking from an Italian original. Many of its beautiful inspirations were used again by Handel in later works; among them a Sarabande in F played in the third act, which reappeared in the guise of the delightful Lascia ch’io piango in his opera Rinaldo. that the composer was very fond of it is shown by the fact that he used it again for a third time in his Italian oratorio, Il trionfo del tempe e della verita.

On this occasion I must point out that it was quite customary with Handel to borrow from his own works. Some historians go so far as to assert that he sometimes genially borrowed from the works of other composers.

The Italian visit (1707-1710) was one of the most important events in Handel’s career, as it was the means of coloring his style for the rest of his life and giving it a fluency \and suavity and grace which it is questionable if it would otherwise have possessed. Also, his fondness for painting had its origin at this time. Also, his practical advantage of the visit was the mastery he acquired of the Italian language and writing. Here begins the great diverging line which so substantially differentiates Handel from Bach. Bach, never having placed himself in contact with the Italian masters and their compositions, preserved the Teutonic sternness and methodical austerity, while Handel added to his German erudition Italian beauty and grace.

Handel stayed first in Florence, where he brought out his first purely Italian opera, Rodrigo, which was received by the Florentines with the greatest delight, and the Grand Duke of Tuscany showed his appreciation in the substantial gift to the composer of a hundred sequins and a serve of silver plate. To crown all the prima donna Cittoria Tesi, either on account of the composition or the comeliness of the writer, fell desperately in love with him. Handel did not seriously encourage the attachment of the young diva, but he allowed her to follow him to Venice for the purpose of singing in a new opera which he had prepared for the theater St. Chrysostom, of that city. It is peculiar that no woman seems to have occupied the smallest place in the long career ofhis life. The historians agree that Vittoria was beautiful and charming enough to turn the head of a young man of twenty-four, but Handel’s heart seems to have been ironclad against Cupid’s arrows.

The title of the new opera was Agrippina, and its first performance, in 1708, caused great enthusiasm, so that the audience burst out in shouts of “Viva il caro Sassone!” (Long live the dear Saxon!) One of the songs, Vaghe fonti, presents in its orchestral accompaniment the first instance of Handel’s use of the pizzicato and mutes. In Rome Handel was a guest of the “Arcadians,” a society which cultivated every kind of artistic taste, and whose members were drawn from the best houses of the country. At the Cardinal Ottoboni’s house he met the famous violinist and composer, Corelli (his works have been edited and published by Joachim), and Allesandro Scarlatti, the greatest Italian musician then living. At the wish of Cardinal Ottoboni, Domenico Scarlatti, the talented son of Allesandro, entered a friendly contest with Handel for the purpose of deciding their respective merits on the organ and the harpsichord. The result of the contest proved doubtful in the case of the harpsichord, but when it came to the organ Scarlatti was the first to admit his rival’s superiority. The effect of the contest was to bind them in a closer friendship than ever. Handel always afterward spoke in the most eulogistic terms of Scarlatti’s talent, and whenever Scarlatti was praised for his organ playing he was accustomed to say, devoutly crossing himself: “But you should hear Handel!”

His next station was Naples, where he remained more than a year. In the autumn of 1709 Handel began to think of returning home, not , however, before bidding a formal farewell to his friends in the various towns he had visited. He began with Rome, where – it being Christmas – he heard the famous pifferari of Calabria play on the bagpipe the melody which they have performed in Rome from time immemorial during the holy week, and he introduced it afterwards in the little pastoral symphony which precedes the arrival of the shepherds in the Messiah.

Handel in London

Arrived in London, Handel was requested to write for the Queens’ Theater an Italian opera, the subject being Rinaldo, in Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered. The poet of the libretto, Rossi, was given so little time that he prefixed his work with the following letter: “I implore you, discreet readers, to consider the speed with which I have had to work, and if my performance does not deserve your praise, at all events do not refuse it your compassion, for Herr Handel, the Orpheus of our age, has scarcely given me time to write, while composing the music, and I have been stupefied to see an entire opera set to harmony with the highest degree of perfection in no more than a fortnight.” The success of Rinaldo was brilliant. The opera was put on the stage with a scenic magnificence which was quite extraordinary, the realism being carried to such an extent that birds were let loose to fly about the stage in the scene which represented the enchanted garden of Armida.

After a short trip to Hanover Handel returned to London, but, being first ignored at court, he was advised by Baron Kielmansegge to prepare music for the occasion of an excursion of the royal party on the Thames. Handel took the hint, and composed a Serenade called Water Music, which the composer himself conducted in a boat which followed the royal barge. The King was surprised and delighted and became reconciled to the composer.

Handel was appointed director of the chapel of the Duke of Chandos at Cannons, where he composed the twelve works known as the Chandos Anthems, as well as the Chandos Te Deum and the Suite de Pieces for the harpsichord, a series of compositions, among them the famous air, with variations, known under the name The Harmonious Blacksmith. His chief work at Cannons was the oratorio Esther, for which the Duke paid him ?1,000. In 1719 he was engaged by a society of noblemen as a composer for a new undertaking which had been formed under the title, “Royal Academy of Music,” having for its object the establishment of Italian opera in England. A fund of ?50,000 was raised, and the King contributed ?1,000. The first thing was to secure the leading singers, and for this purpose Handel proceeded, in February, 1719, to Dusseldorf and Dresden and engaged Senesino, the world known eunuch (his real name was Francesco Bernardi) Boschi and Signora Durastani. From Dresden Handel went to Halle on a visit to his old mother, and while there just missed meeting his great contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach. The latter had long desired to see his celebrated brother musician, and immediately on hearing of Handel’s presence in Halle he started off. Unfortunately, Handel had left for England the day before Bach arrived, and so it happened that these two musical giants in the course of their long lives never once met.

Ariosti and Bononcini had been also engaged for the same undertaking. These two men, though inferior to Handel, had their admirers. The Duchess of Marlborough especially had a decided preference for Bononcini. The directors of the Academy, taking into account these divided sympathies, caused the three musicians, with a view to test the abilities of each, to combine together in the composition of the next opera. The subject chosen for the libretto was Muzio Scevola, and the poem was divided into three parts, each forming a separate act. Ariosti undertook the first act, Bononcini the second and Handel the third. Handel’s part was at once decided by the public to be immensely superior to the rest of the work, but the supporters of the rival composers remained unconvinced. WE do not need to point out the bad taste of such an artistic compound.

It would take too long to mention all the operas written by Handel during his connection with the Royal Academy of Music. Opposition to Handel grew stronger, and the popular favor seemed to fail him, so that Handel suffered heavy financial losses and, as a consequence of his untiring exertion, also failed markedly in his health. His right arm had become useless from a stroke of palsy. After a cure in Aix-la-Chapelle he recovered and, returning to London in 1735, devoted himself to that work which raised him to a position of the highest eminence among the composers of the world. Although nearly 60 years old, he showed in the last years of his life the greatest creative power. The oratorios, Saul and Israel in Egypt (supposed to have been written in twenty-eight days), belong to this period. Following Israel came the ode L’Allegro, il Pensieroso ed il Moderato. To the Irish belongs the honor of having first performed the Messiah, the most sublime and popular of all Handel’s oratorios. Handel wrote this work especially for Dublin, where it was given for the first time in 1742. Such a crowd was expected to hear the first production that the following notice appeared in Faulkner’s Journal:

“This day will be performed Mr. Handel’s new grand sacred oratorio called the Messiah. The doors will be open at eleven, and the performance begin at twelve. The stewards of the Charitable Musical Society request as a favor of the ladies not to come with hoops this day to the Musik Hall in Fishamble Street. The gentlemen are requested to com without their swords.”

This courteous accommodation on the part of the ladies and gentlemen, it was declared, would enable the stewards to seat one hundred persons more.

On the 6th of April, 1759, Handel directed the performance of the Messiah at the Covent Garden Theater, and after the performance was over he was seized with a deathly faintness, and on returning home he was placed in his bed, from which he was destined no more to arise.

The fecundity of Handel was prodigious. Enough to say that he composed 23 oratorios and 44 operas, 39 of the latter in Italian.

In person and character Handel was like his music, large and powerful. He was kind and generous to a degree that his roughness of manner and the blunt humor of his conversation could not impair. He never married nor did he ever show any inclination for the cares and joys of domestic life.

Handel required uncommonly large and frequent supplies of food. It is said that whenever he dined alone at  a tavern he always ordered “dinner for three,” and on receiving as answer to his questions, “Is te dinner retty?” (Handel never los this German accent) “As soon as the company come,” the waiter would say. “Den bring up de dinner prestissimo. I am de gombany.”

Although he lived much with the great of his day, Handel was no flatterer. He once told a member of the royal family who asked how he liked his playing of the violoncello: ‘Vy, sir, your highness plays like a prince.” When the same prince prevailed on him to hear a minuet of his own composition, which he played himself on the violoncello, Handel heard him out very quietly but when the prince told him that he would call in his band to play it to him, that he might hear the full effect of his composition, Handel could contain himself no longer, and ran out of the room crying: “Worsher and worsher, upon my honor!”

On Sunday, having attended divine worship at a country church, Handel asked the organist to permit him to play the people out, to which the organist politely consented. Handel accordingly sat down to the organ and began to play in such a masterly manner as instantly to attract the attention of the whole congregation, who, instead of vacating the seats, as usual, remained for a considerable time listening in silent admiration.

The organist began to be impatient and at length, addressing the performer, told him that he was convinced that he could not play the people out, and advised him to relinquish the attempt, which, being done, a few strains from the ordinary organist in the accustomed manner operated like the sounding of the fire alarm, and emptied the church instanter.

Resuming, we find in Handel’s career the following salient points as especially responsible for his unparalleled success:

The opposition of his father to his musical career, which made it the more attractive and desirable to the boy.

The “command” of the Duke of Sachsen-Weissenfels to devote the boy to the stduy of music, to which an humble subject like Handel’s father could not make serious resistance.

The wonderful musical training received from a competent teacher like Zachau.

The intimate friendship with the highly gifted Mattheson, which was a continuous inspiration to the responsive young artist.

His sojourn in Italy, which added to his Muse all the charm and all the graces of the land “where the oranges blossom.”